Proposed zoning changes would thwart ‘McMansions’


Proliferation of mega homes in Southest has riled many residents

LINDEN HILLS – Stuck in the ground outside Dana Mitchell’s modest, stucco-sided home are two signs protesting a recent trend in Southwest.

“Monster houses make bad neighbors,” they read.

Next door, construction workers are putting the finishing touches on a brand new, million-dollar home that towers over nearby houses.

“It’s mammoth in scope and not consistent with the wishes or style of the neighborhood,” Mitchell said. “We say this is the monster home that greed built.”

“Monster house” or “McMansion” are terms used to describe newly constructed or remodeled homes that are substantially larger than nearby residences. Such homes have become common throughout Southwest in recent years, spurring debate among residents, builders and city officials about what is appropriate.

Mitchell said her signs would stay planted until the city improves size and style regulations for new homes, something City Council Member Betsy Hodges (13th Ward) has been working toward during the last year.

With the help of city planners, Hodges drafted changes to the Minneapolis zoning ordinance that are meant to minimize the impact of new homes and additions. Community members took their first look at the proposed changes at an open house March 19. A second open house is scheduled for March 22 and a public hearing is set before the Minneapolis Planning Commission April 9.

The City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee will then review the ammendments and make a recommendation to the full Council. Hodges hopes the changes are enacted by early May, before construction season is in full swing.

Minimizing the monster

Hodges said large-scale home building was one of the top issues she heard about when running for her Council seat.

Last July, she hosted a community meeting to learn more about the community’s “monster house” concerns. Frustrations included sunlight and open space reductions, construction disturbances and drainage issues. But at the top of the list was bulk.

“What people cared about most was volume,” she said.

Current zoning law does not restrict the maximum square footage of single-family homes, enabling developers to build as large as they want within the city’s setback requirements, which are 20 feet from the front of a lot and 5 feet on each side throughout most of the city. Height is limited to 35 feet.

Builders must also earn a minimum of 15 points from a list of design standards.

Hodges is proposing a maximum floor area ratio – the area of a building divided by the area of the lot it sits on – of 2,500 square feet or 50 percent of a lot; whichever is greater. Other recommendations, according to a draft of her amendments, include:

– Exempting certain desirable spaces such as detached garages, sunken basements and open porches from a home’s footprint as an incentive;

– Minimizing building height by discouraging grade changes caused by fill, landscaping and berming construction techniques and encouraging traditional basements. The definition of “grade” would include natural or existing grade;

– Reducing the maximum building footprint from 60 percent of a lot to 50 percent and the maximum impervious surface allowed on a lot from 75 percent to 65 percent; and

– Awarding design points for homes with shallow hip roofs if they are within 100 feet of a home with a similar roof.

According to city data, 144 new homes were built in Southwest during the past eight years. Annual home construction in the area jumped from 14 in 1999 to 33 in 2006.

North Minneapolis led the city in new home construction from 1999-2006 with 311 homes built. Hodges’ amendments would impact construction throughout the city, but she said “monster houses” haven’t been a problem outside Southwest.

“I don’t want a solution in Ward 13 to be a problem for the rest of the city,” she said.

She said her recommendations are not silver bullets for Southwest’s “McMansion” concerns, but they should help ease the tension between residents and builders.

“I think the problems will be significantly reduced,” she said.

Distaste and demand

As Hodges’ amendments move forward, builders continue to search for a balance between neighborhood tastes and buyer demands.

“I’m fearful that if they make too many restrictions, it will limit things that make an area vibrant,” said Anthony Waldera, who is building a new home in East Isles and another in Kenwood.

He said his homes are not large enough to be effected by Hodges’ proposals and he’s not a fan of “McMansions.” But some of the large new homes in Southwest enhance the neighborhood and are better than the old houses they replace, he said.

Peter Crain, president of Edina-based C3 Construction, which is building two large homes in Linden Hills, said he wouldn’t mind working within narrower building parameters, as long as he could find a way to include amenities that buyers want and still turn a profit.

“The one thing that keeps us building in Minneapolis is that we’re able to make projects work financially,” he said.

But many amenities require additional square footage, he said. Finding an existing house with four bedrooms, for instance, is not easy in Southwest, he said. Remodeling is usually too expensive or difficult, so new construction is favorable, he said.

Demand for expensive new homes is high, said Southwest Realtor Michael Wille, who works for Coldwell Banker Burnet.

“In my opinion, public demand will set the standard for what size houses are,” Wille said.

He is showing a new C3 home near 40th Street and Beard Avenue.

“It should be sold in a couple weeks,” he said.

Nearby, at 39th Street and Chowen Avenue, Southwest builder Chuck Kappes is finishing his first new home.

His project involved demolishing an existing home, which had an 800 square-foot footprint and one bedroom, he said. The new home sports four bedrooms, has a 1,470 square-foot base and rises to a height of nearly 30 feet, easily making it the largest house on the block.

Kappes said he purchased the original home for about $265,000, sunk roughly $800,000 into construction and is selling the home for $1,150,000. He said he has tried to make it fit in with the neighborhood by utilizing materials such as stucco siding. But building is a business, he said, and he built what he thought would sell.

“This is my living,” he said.

Kappes, who came under fire from neighbors, said he would love to see restrictions on home size. He said he didn’t realize residents would be upset about the house.

Nearby resident Mike Mumey said the home doesn’t fit in with the rest of the block and the construction process has been disrespectful.

A couple houses down are Mitchell’s signs, one facing the street, another fronting her big neighbor. She said her beef is with the building, not whoever moves in it.

She and husband Derek Rodman said they are upset about the shadowing created by the new house, the reduction in green space, construction noise that has disturbed their 4-year-old daughter and the sheer size of the new home. Maintaining neighborhood affordability and charm are among other concerns.

Mitchell and Rodman have distributed their signs to a few neighbors. They hope builders will take notice.

“If you want to come into our neighborhood, make sure you build with the neighborhood in mind,” Mitchell said.

Hodges said improving communication between builders and residents is something she’s also trying to tackle.

“I’m aware there are some significant communication issues (the ammendments) won’t address,” she said at the March 19 open house. “But my office is working on those issues.”

The March 22 open house is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Christ the King Church, 5029 Zenith Ave. S. The April 9 public hearing before the Planning Commission is set for 4:30 p.m. in room 317 at City Hall, 350 S. 5th St.


Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected].