Infill housing ordinance passes

Ordinance designed to thwart ‘McMansions’ that don’t fit the neighborhood

A long-anticipated ordinance aimed at curbing super-sized infill housing in parts of Southwest passed unanimously at the June 29 City Council meeting.

The ordinance is an effort to address concerns about the recent trend of tearing down small homes and replacing them with new houses that don’t fit their neighborhood.

“The pure bulk of these structures was an imposition to the neighbors and the neighborhood,” said City Council Member Betsy Hodges (13th Ward), who represents the Linden Hills and Fulton neighborhoods where the infill housing has been prominent and who authored the ordinance.

One of the main concerns Hodges said she heard from residents was their desire to maintain the character of their neighborhoods. Hodges said she doesn’t want people to move to the city because they love the character of its neighborhoods, only to see that character significantly altered by infill housing.

Current zoning law does not restrict the maximum square footage of single-family homes. This ordinance will limit the square footage of a home to 50 percent of the square footage of the lot, or 2,500 square feet — whichever is greater. For the most part, open porches, basements, detached garages and attic space will not factor into the ratio.

The ordinance also limits the height of single and two-family homes to two-and-a-half stories or 30 feet, whichever is less, and measures height from the “natural grade,” which is defined as the existing lot before it is modified.

In addition, the ordinance reduces the allowed lot-coverage percentage from 60 to 50 percent and the maximum impervious surface percentage from 75 to 65 percent.

Since residents expressed a desire to protect attached garages that maintain backyard open space, they will be allowed, but a portion of the space might count toward the floor area ratio.

Two other last-minute additions to the proposed ordinance create exceptions for certain homes. One will allow a one-time addition of up to 500 square feet for homes that already exceed the floor area ratio or for homes where an addition of up to 500 square feet would put them above the limit.  Another would allow administrative variances for homes exceeding height and floor area ratio restrictions if homes of similarly large size already surround the home.

“I have always said that I wanted to make sure that any solution we found for Ward 13 and Southwest Minneapolis would not create problems for other areas of the city,” Hodges said. “I think what we have in here today is a balance between the modern desire for larger homes and the desire to keep the character we have.”

Several council members praised Hodges’ work in attempting to prevent the ordinance from negatively impacting areas of the city that are not yet experiencing infill housing issues to the same degree as
Southwest.

“Sometimes trends in our city start in one area, but in generations they often go to other areas of the city,” Council Member Paul Ostrow (1st Ward) said.

Council Member Ralph Remington (10th Ward), who represents the Uptown area, said the ordinance will help set some good parameters, but he warned that some people might still find loopholes in the restrictions.

“I also want to caution folks, because I know in the year 2007 we place great stock in traditionalism … but whatever ordinance we create, there will be rich and wealthy people who will get around it,” Remington said.

Many Southwest residents have kept a close eye on the ordinance and celebrated its approval.

Among them was Dana Mitchell, of Linden Hills, whose opposition to the large-home trend can be seen on signs in her front yard that say “monster homes make bad neighbors.” Mitchell lives next door to a large new house that she said doesn’t fit the character of the neighborhood.

She said Hodges’ ordinance is a step in the right direction, but not a final solution.

“I still think there’s more work to do, particularly with the setbacks,” she said. “But I’m very pleased.”

Mitchell said the ordinance places significant restrictions on otherwise unchecked building, but she doesn’t expect neighbors to be pleased with every new home that goes up from now on.

“We can’t legislate bad taste,” she said.

As Hodges’ ordinance was being developed and more community members started vocalizing concerns about infill housing, some builders began taking a closer look at how to make new homes fit their neighborhoods.

“I’m already evolving along with the city,” said Shane Walgamuth, president of Minneapolis-based Shane Builders.

Walgamuth said some of the first homes he built in the neighborhood were out of character, but he has made an effort to make recent projects more compatible. He said he doesn’t agree with every part of the new ordinance, such as its disfavor of attached garages, but overall he thinks it’s a good thing.

“I’m still going to be able to do what I need to do to be successful,” Walgamuth said. “I can still build nice houses.”

Michael Noonan, president of the Builders Association of the Twin Cities, said he and other builders were glad to see the ordinance put in place so rules are better specified. Guidelines were too loose and didn’t provide enough direction prior to the text amendments, he said.   

“We are an industry that lives with following the rules,” Noonan said. “Just tell us what the rules are and we’ll follow them.”

Noonan said the new restrictions are appropriate and will help homes blend into Minneapolis neighborhoods. They aren’t so tight that they’ll keep builders from plying their trade in the city, he said, even though the limits might not be ideal for every builder.  

“Ultimately we’d like a blank slate [at a building site],” Noonan said. “But practically, you need some control … someone will push the envelope.”

John Finlayson, president of the Fulton Neighborhood Association, hopes the ordinance provides some relief to residents who have seen that push first-hand. Residents never intended to stop the building process, he said. They just wanted to see it managed.

“Time will tell as to whether this is the end-all,” Finlayson said. “But I think this is a really good effort.”

Reach Kari VanDerVeen at kvanderveen@mnpubs.com or