City wants 26,000 new housing units ?? but where?

On major streets; new campaign hopes advance planning defuses affordable housing debates

A move is afoot to help neighborhoods do the near-impossible -- work in advance with the city to locate affordable housing before developers present plans.

With the city planning to add 26,000 affordable housing units by 2030 -- in part by increasing housing density along commercial byways such as Lyndale Avenue and West 50th Street -- the Housing Corridor Campaign hopes to head off some inevitable controversy surrounding housing proposals, such as the need for more affordable housing versus the traffic it may bring, and other neighborhood impacts.

The ultimate goal is to identify specific affordable housing development sites, particularly in neighborhoods that lack affordable housing, said Gretchen Nicholls of the Minneapolis-based Center For Neighborhoods, which sponsors the effort. She said the projects would focus on housing along high-traffic corridors, city-designated growth areas.

To be successful, the campaign must develop specific recommendations that meet both city and neighborhood goals, she said.

The campaign combines neighborhood groups with urban design experts, for-profit and nonprofit developers, marketing experts and city regulators to talk about what makes a project desirable and financially realistic.

The Housing Corridor Campaign has a budget of $400,000, Nicholls said. It already has a $260,000 grant from the Family Housing Fund and the backing of the city.

"The siting of affordable-housing development is one of the greatest challenges facing the city in our attempts to respond to the current housing crisis and expand locational choices throughout the city for low-income families," wrote Mayor R.T. Rybak in support of the Center for Neighborhoods grant.

"We are committed to providing a wide array of in-kind support through staffing and other resources."

The project could have a downside, Nicholls said. By identifying potential development sites, it could inflate the land's sale price and make the project less affordable.

Growth on the arteries

After decades of population decline, the city is anticipating 15 percent more housing units in the next three decades, said Chuck Ballentine, city planning director.

The city could add those units where traditionally it has had high-density housing -- along commercial corridors and old streetcar lines, such as Lyndale Avenue, Broadway Avenue and Lake Street.

"We ought to get to 26,000 [new units] pretty quick," he said. "We think there is capacity. It will be challenging for some people."

Planner Thavisack Silaphet has done initial calculations on what could happen if the city worked to increase housing density on the city's main by-ways. Those corridors now have roughly nine units per acre; he did the math boosting the number to 30 units per acre.

As one example, Silaphet said he counted 31 blocks on Lyndale south of Lake Street. Tripling the density -- now roughly 11 residences per block -- would add more than 1,500 units along that stretch of Lyndale. Similar calculations estimate adding 540 units along West 50th Street between France and Nicollet avenues.

He said his housing corridor density map was "a first cut" and "an exercise" and did not reflect a more thorough block-by-block analysis, which the city plans to do.

The Housing Corridor Campaign would focus on development along these transportation corridors, Nicholls said.

The Center for Neighborhoods plans to issue a Request for Proposals by May 15, inviting neighborhood associations and other community-based groups to apply to participate and define the area they want to study. The Housing Corridor Campaign would work with one or two groups at a time during the next 18 months, eventually working with three to five groups overall.

She hoped multiple groups would collaborate on a single application. Groups would apply to study a particular area, perhaps a half-mile across, perhaps three miles across.

"We are trying to create some flexibility and let communities define how they want to look at these issues," she said. "We also want a manageable scale."

The first selections are expected late July, with work starting in August, she said. An independent facilitator from the Center would help structure a formal agreement and lead discussions.

Applications need the support and full partnership of both the City Council members and the affected neighborhood group to be considered, Nicholls said.

For more information, call the Center at 339-3480.