"Downzoning" not good for city, says councilmember
Minneapolis has been looking more and more suburban lately, says City Councilmember Dan Niziolek (10th Ward), thanks to a citywide trend in recent years to downzone properties from multi-unit housing to single-family homes.
And, that’s too bad, according to Niziolek, because density – even "upzoning" (a four-letter word to many neighborhood residents) – can be a good thing.
In a recent interview with the Southwest Journal, Niziolek outlined some proposals to change the zoning code that are being discussed in the City Council – among them, incentives to encourage developers to develop and maintain affordable housing, easing the path to duplex conversion and the return of the carriage house.
What are some recent trends in zoning? Zoning is very reactive. It could be very proactive. Is it being used to create what you want, or is it being used to restrict what you don’t want?
Do we truly want and can we afford single-family homes in large areas throughout Minneapolis?
If we’re talking public transportation, small businesses, a tax base and a vibrant urban environment, a large concentration of single-family is suburban. It’s that mixture of different housing options that creates that urban environment that we need to be successful.
If we have the density, we can support those small businesses; otherwise, they won’t exist. In Uptown, we have the density to support public transportation and the small businesses.
As a city, we’ve lost some of that density. Over the past five years or so, we as a city have been doing major downzoning because there’s a real negative reaction to a lot of the two-story walk-ups in the neighborhoods. People felt like their neighborhoods were being taken away. They saw all these wonderful houses being torn down for these two-story walk-ups, and with it a variety of things were going on.
We saw an increase in density, we saw crime going up and we saw these buildings being built, and everybody started to associate crime and high density. So, there was an immediate reaction nationwide to start downzoning cities.
Why is this downzoning a negative thing? Because we’ve undergone a major downzoning as a city, we are greatly impacting one of the things you have to do as a city – and that’s grow.
If you look at the normal growth of cities, the intensity is here [HOLDS HANDS APART], and it works its way up. If you have a single-family house here and you’re next to industry, the value isn’t so great. But, if there is some other use that is greater, the single family goes away and another higher intensity use goes in. And, it keeps working its way out.
We’ve tried to contain that growth under the old zoning plan. The new zoning plan actually tries to reverse some of that. The old zoning really liked to isolate uses in different areas of the city – industrial here, housing there.
The new zoning code really does a much better job of doing a mixed-use matrix for a livable city that is affordable – the idea is to get uses together so that they are compatible. If you do have industry, can we have a commercial [zone] before you get to residential? Or an industrial use that is compatible with residential?
So, zoning actually creates a ceiling that can prevent a city’s growth? Yep, we’ve prevented the growth of our city, and we’ve actually taken away some of the growth because we downzoned.
The MCDA is pretty famous for doing that. There are a number of lots that are R5, which prevents a single-family house from being built there – R5 means it has to be multi-family – and over the years, the MCDA has been downzoning these properties to create single-family houses.
So, instead of having five units, we have one. When we talk about affordability, there’s supply and demand. What’s happening to the supply? That supply is going down, the demand is going higher. And so that’s where zoning is very important – if you downzone, you have a negative impact on the housing supply, which could push up the price of housing.
Another thing in the supply aspect is to bring back the carriage house idea, which is very characteristic of the old Minneapolis that we’ve gone away from. And from a crime prevention aspect, we bring back the alleys because if someone is living up there, it is, in a sense, their front yard.
What about the current zoning map? As I understand it, a property is zoned for whatever its current use is as opposed to what it could or should be. Shouldn’t zoning be more of a proactive instead of reactive tool? Absolutely, have you ever seen the map? Let me show you, it’s such a hodge-podge – it’s just like a patch quilt. Here’s the ECCO neighborhood, and you can look at how it’s sort of a patch quilt here and there.
Part of the difficulty in changing the map is that to change zoning is really tough politically. The word "upzoning"? You say it, and you get everybody’s attention in a room. It’s amazing. Because we’ve downzoned so much, people traditionally have seen density as negative and density and crime together.
It’s because of the negative perception and that fact that people have had things rammed down their throats as a neighborhood.
In the LHENA neighborhood, for example, a group of people worked really hard because developers were coming into the neighborhood, ripping down the grand Victorian houses and putting up those two-story walk-ups.
So, they were able to downzone – appropriately, in most cases – their neighborhood to preserve existing housing stock, so it wasn’t just taken over by apartments.
That’s where you can use downzoning appropriately, but then we have to look at a lot of our transportation corridors, like Lyndale, Hennepin, Lake Street, and build that density so you have the edge density, which then goes into the single-family houses.
Is the relationship between density and crime correlated or is it causal? Correlated, yes. Causal, no. Correlated in the fact that if you have bad density, it’s related, but density in and of itself, no.
I worked at the Police Department 10 years, I have a Sociology and Criminology background – density and crime to me were correlated, you have more density, you have more crime. But, I’ve learned over the 10 years working with planners in Crime
Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) that density actually makes a much stronger, safer, vibrant environment in an urban setting if it’s well designed and well managed.
So, the misperception of density and crime is influencing us to drive our cities down density-wise, but if you ask these people who say they don’t like density what they think of certain areas like Grand Avenue, they say it’s a great place.
But, if you look at the density on Grand Avenue, it’s incredible. There’s a much higher density. It’s a good mixture of transportation corridors and then you step into the neighborhood, and you’re immediately going into single-family, duplexes and a couple apartments. That’s the type of density we need to look at when growing as a city.
So, the first thing we need to do is understand where density is appropriate, where is it not, how do we grow our city.
We’ve really hurt our supply in terms of downzoning and our lack of upzoning in appropriate locations.
People will naturally ask for higher density in certain areas once they understand what that means.
With that, we can look at appropriate upzoning along our transportation corridors so we can have higher densities. We’re also looking at giving affordable-housing bonuses.
Would the affordable-housing bonuses be applicable to projects funded by private money and projects funded by public money? Yes, it would apply to everybody. For example, let’s say you’re a developer who has a parcel of land, and it’s zoned R5, so you can build up to four units. Let’s say you want to do five units or six units. With the bonus for affordable housing, you would provide, let’s say two units at 50 percent of median income. So, you could build two additional units. Instead of a four-unit building, you could build a six-unit building.
So, would the affordability component stay with the life of the property? Even if the owner sold the property to someone else, at least two units would still have to be affordable? Yes, and that’s going to be the tricky part. How do you attach the bonuses to the property for the longevity of it? Because how do we monitor it?
One of the problems with the city is the monitoring. Are we going to be out there monitoring rents?
Currently, we have zoning bonuses for underground parking and some other things, but this is a new one and it brings in a new wrinkle – how do you monitor it?
Another affordable-housing bonus would be to decrease the parking requirement. So, looking at the incentive to developers based on providing a certain number of units at "X" percentage of the metro median income.
Isn’t single-family home ownership a good thing? Everybody likes home ownership. Home ownership is good, but it’s not the only thing to do.
The MCDA has at least five R5 lots citywide, and they’re proposing to downzone all of them. The rationale behind it is these properties are in neighborhoods with a higher percentage of rental versus owner-occupied.
But, what they’re not thinking about it is, yes the neighborhood is higher in rental, but is it single-family, duplex rental or is it a large apartment building?
It might be single families and duplexes that are rental. That’s not a problem of density, that’s a result of people not choosing to live there and to instead rent that property out.
So, a better approach instead of downzoning these properties, which decreases our supply, would be to convert these units back to home ownership.
Another thing we’re looking at is in R2B districts. To give you an idea of our zoning districts, the R1 and R1A are basically single family, and with R2 and R2B, you can have duplexes and things like that.
In R2B areas in particular, which is a significant part of our city, to do a duplex, you are currently required to have a 10,000-square-foot lot, which is double the size of a normal lot. So, the question is why?
South Minneapolis has one of the higher concentrations of duplexes in the nation. I think it’s incredible in terms of density. A lot of times you have owner-occupied with a rental – that’s a great situation.
We used to allow duplexes on a 5,000-square-foot lot on an R2B. About seven years ago, it was changed to require a 10,000-square-foot lot because people were converting single-family houses into duplexes. So, the reaction was, "Uh-oh, wait a second."
So, there again, the natural reaction of a city is to grow, and we use the zoning code to constrain it. Now, we are discouraging duplexes, which is an excellent form of density in these neighborhoods, so we’re looking at decreasing the requirement back down to the 5,000 requirement.
But, people are still worried about conversions. So, right now, we’re looking at how do we craft it so that we provide incentives for duplexes at 5,000-square-foot lots, but we do not see a neighborhood totally turn over conversion of single-family houses to duplexes.
How do you figure out what to zone properties? The key to zoning, and it’s a struggle, is you’re looking for a balance.
The question is, how do you do zoning? If you want a nice mix of single-family, duplexes, apartment buildings, retail, commercial, and so on, redo the patch quilt.
On my block, 3500 block of Garfield, we have 50 percent single-family, another 30 percent duplexes, the rest are either four-plexes or greater – nice mix, it works great on our block, but to get that density elsewhere, you’d literally have to zone a block like that.
Otherwise, if it’s all zoned R5, and the market is driving it, it could all be R5. So, that’s the challenge. How do you do zoning to get a nice mixture of density?
How do you create a flexible enough zoning code that can adapt to market changes? Some people have talked about using design guidelines in some areas or using overlay districts.
Most of what we have is considered pedestrian, overlay districts. Linden Hills is an example of that. And, with that, we have special requirements of what can happen in overlay districts that are geared towards pedestrians, like lower parking requirements because we want people to walk there, buildings should be more up against the street, more fenestration. Dinkytown has a pedestrian district, too.
We can use these districts to create more flexibility and creativity.
So, how do you go about making these zoning changes? We need to retain and grow some of that density, but in very appropriate ways and not to scare people.
Right now, people are accepting of growing the city, but if you talk about upzoning too much, people will run away from you.
To me, it’s going to be a very refined educational process. We need community planners to be working again with the community to help design their neighborhood.
It’s all education. You have to deal with biases and perceptions, which we all have, but I find that if you give people the information, they’ll make the right decisions.
It’s the proximity of live, work, shop, learn and play in your neighborhood. The old zoning code in 1963 really segregated these uses, and you see it in the suburbs.
I mean, wouldn’t you want a Grand Avenue in your neighborhood?