A timeout for teardowns

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March 7, 2014 // UPDATED 3:12 pm - March 19, 2014
By: Sarah McKenzie
A house under construction in Linden Hills.
Sarah McKenzie
City Council approves one-year moratorium on demolitions and rebuilds in several southwest Minneapolis neighborhoods

Build it like you live next door.

That’s the goal City Council Member Linea Palmisano (Ward 13) is trying to achieve with a one-year moratorium on teardowns in several southwest Minneapolis neighborhoods.

With the housing market heating up again, southwest Minneapolis has experienced a spike in demolitions and new residential construction. The onslaught of construction and its impacts on neighboring homes has been a source of frustration for many residents and a top issue neighborhood leaders have pressed Palmisano to address.

She introduced an ordinance at the March 7 City Council meeting calling for the moratorium on teardowns of single- and two-family homes in Linden Hills, Fulton, Armatage, Kenny and Lynnhurst. It went into effect immediately after the Council unanimously approved it, but it is subject to further Council review. There’s a public hearing planned on the moratorium before the Council’s Zoning & Planning Committee on March 20.

The moratorium also applies to building additions exceeding 1,500 square feet on single- and two-family homes.

The city’s Community Planning and Economic Development Department (CPED) has also started a study to review the city’s regulations and propose ways to make them easier to understand and enforce.

The 13th Ward has been experiencing a deluge of new residential construction activity. There were 67 permits filed with the city for new single-family homes in 2013, according to CPED records — far exceeding activity in other wards.

In a letter sent to constituents after the Council vote March 7, Palmisano wrote she’s heard many complaints about the impact of new residential construction.

“We feel fortunate to live in such a desirable community, but we need to find a way to improve the wrecking and construction process for those who want to build in our neighborhoods,” she wrote. “We need neighbors to feel respected and informed about the changes to their blocks; we need all builders to comply with our regulations around noise, dumpsters, idling, shoveling, and parking; and we need to bring greater environmental sensitivity to these projects.”

Wrecking or building permit applications that were filed with the city by March 7 are exempt from the moratorium. Waivers will also be granted for people who can show they will face financial hardship as a result of the building restrictions.

Meanwhile, opponents of the moratorium have mobilized, launched a website called No Moratorium.com and are asking the Council to reverse the moratorium in an online petition. As of mid-morning Tuesday, it had attracted 234 signatures. It called for Palmisano and other city leaders to “engage in meaningful dialogue on how the city can address improving construction process rules in a manner that does not alienate important contributors to that discussion.”

Palmisano met with a group of developers and builders after the Council vote to explain the purpose of the moratorium. She said hitting the “pause button” on new construction is a necessary step to ensure better communication policies are established to keep neighbors in the loop about new projects, raise the bar on environmental practices and make sure builders don’t take advantage of holes in the zoning code by moving ahead with “virtual teardowns” on remodeling permits.

In some cases, neighbors of teardown projects have experienced basement flooding and other types of property damage, Palmisano said. The increase in construction activity has also put a strain on the sewer system and narrowed streets to make way for giant dumpsters.

She also noted that while Linden Hills and other southwest neighborhoods get lauded for being environmental leaders for things like organics recycling, many of the teardown projects don’t involve sustainable practices. Building materials don’t get recycled and end up in the county’s garbage burner and many lack plans for effective stormwater management.

Some builders and property owners are in limbo, awaiting word from the city about how their projects will be impacted by the moratorium.

Dave Sampsell has been in talks with Palmisano to ensure his family’s new home project near Lake Harriet in Linden Hills can move forward as planned. He is seeking a variance to rebuild a roughly 2,800-square-foot, three-bedroom house on a high visibility corner lot near the lake and has received support from his neighbors.

He called the moratorium a “very blunt instrument” and said he’s disappointed by the lack of notification and community discussion before it took effect.

“I’m most disappointed with the process,” he said.

Palmisano said Sampsell’s project will not be subject to the moratorium as long as the Zoning Board of Adjustments approves his variance application.

“I am working very hard to make sure that our area residents are not caught in the cogs of this pause in any way that gives them hardship,” she said.

Michael Anschel, principal and a designer for North Minneapolis-based Otogawa-Anschel, said his firm has work pending in neighborhoods impacted by the moratorium. The company specializes in green design for urban neighborhoods.

He said though while he is an environmentalist and shares Palmisano’s goals of promoting green-building practices, he is critical of using a moratorium to achieve that outcome. He said there are best practices for green building standards that the city could require developers to follow.

“Personally, I don’t think it’s good politics,” he said.

Some neighborhood leaders, however, believe the construction activity has gotten so intense that the best policy is to take a break and find ways to make sure new policies are put in place that ensure better outcomes for everyone involved.

Jim Tincher, president of the Fulton Neighborhood Association, noted that you need to notify neighbors if you’re going to keep a chicken, but you don’t have to if you’re proceeding with a teardown and plan to triple the size of your house.

“Nobody wants your neighbors to design your house,” he said, adding that the process is more about creating a way to keep people in the loop when a major change is planned for the block.

Tincher said he hasn't taken a position on the moratorium and believes it's important to start a conversation with neighbors about issues surrounding teardowns and rebuilds.

Felicity Britton, executive director at Linden Hills Power & Light, a neighborhood nonprofit working on environmental issues, said she has concerns about how the teardowns are impacting the demographics of the area.

Builders are buying smaller homes, demolishing them and building new homes that sell for $600,000 to more than $1 million.

“I hate that we’re creating a financial barrier to being part of this neighborhood,” she said. “The teachers, police officers, mail carriers, etc. who are part of our community can’t afford to live in this community. And most of my friends and neighbors probably can’t afford to buy their current houses at the values they’re at now.”