THE WEDGE — Wedge residents who’ve long advocated rezoning swaths of the neighborhood to protect its older homes against redevelopment were stymied once again in July.
The Community Planning and Economic Development department won’t move ahead with a neighborhood rezoning study the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association requested more than a year ago. Research begun around that time by city staff also has cast a new light on a controversial era of the Wedge’s history and raised larger questions about the links between zoning and redevelopment.
To answer these questions, city planners aim to expand a meticulous, lot-by-lot study of development patterns in the Wedge to other residential areas near the downtown core. They say their findings will shape the next version of Minneapolis’ comprehensive plan, a policy document that guides zoning regulations and is due for an update in 2018.
That’s not soon enough for some Wedge residents, who say the intense redevelopment along the Midtown Greenway may begin to encroach on the neighborhood’s less densely populated core. At issue is what many who live in the Wedge would describe as its essential character: residential architecture dating from the 1880s to the 1920s.
It includes single-family homes, duplexes and other original buildings that, even if they’ve been chopped-up into multiple units, look much the same from the outside as they did a century ago. But the streetscape is also dotted with larger, multi-unit residential buildings of more recent vintage, and how they got there is the stuff of neighborhood lore.
In 1963, during a period of so-called “urban renewal” in Minneapolis, almost the entire neighborhood was up-zoned to R6. The change meant developers could buy up and demolish old homes, replacing them with high-density, multi-family housing.
LHENA, formed by residents in the early ’70s, fought to undo those changes and won a partial victory. Most of the neighborhood south of 24th Street was downzoned to R2B in 1975.
But patches of R6 zoning remain, and old fears rekindle whenever redevelopment picks up in the area — like right now.
Brian Schaffer, the CPED planner who broke the news to the neighborhood at LHENA’s July 16 board meeting, said the idea that the 1963 zoning change drove redevelopment “is not as clear-cut as that.”
“It is evident there were market forces for redevelopment ahead of that time,” Schaffer said.
In a report delivered to the neighborhood, he identified 36 examples of “multifamily projects developed as (the) result of demolition” between 1950 and 1974. Essentially, the neighborhood was already changing before 1963, and continued to change after rezoning cleared the way for even larger multi-family residential developments.
“The true intent wasn’t to debunk people’s thoughts as much as we wanted to understand what had happened and understand the role of zoning and the market,” he said.
But the report clearly stung several LHENA board members and some in the audience at the James Ballentine VFW hall who shook their heads as Schaffer spoke. There may have been a sense of déjà vu: A decade earlier, the last round of rezoning talks between the neighborhood and city broke down when the two sides couldn’t agree on a plan.
Board Chair Leslie Foreman served on that neighborhood rezoning task force in the early 2000s, and thought Schaffer signaled more openness when they restarted talks in late 2012 and early 2013.
“To think that we finally had a strong partner in the city was really exciting, which makes the recent news more disappointing,” Foreman said.
Kjersti Monson, the city’s director of long-range planning, acknowledged the neighborhood’s concerns but said her department can’t launch a rezoning study without clear policy direction from the City Council, such as an adopted small area plan.
As an interim step, they’re offering the Wedge the chance to use a new planning tool, the urban design assessment. It inventories the existing city policies and plans for a neighborhood, examines how streets and buildings are currently used and then considers future development scenarios.
“Our intent is to document areas of concern,” Monson said. “… We want to look at this through the lens of real places and real volumes and real human scale.”
Foreman said the assessment “has the potential to be a great tool to guide development,” but argued the city lacks the tools to respond to the changes happening in the Wedge right now. She pointed to the City Council vote in May to allow demolition of 2320 Colfax Ave. S., where the Lander Group proposes to build a 45-unit apartment building.
“We have development pressures now,” she said. Although it’s a divisive issue even in the Wedge, many neighbors considered the 120-year-old home-turned-boarding house worthy of historic preservation.
The speed of change
Steve Prince, a former LHENA board member who participated in the early 2000s rezoning push, lives in what the neighborhood organization labels a “critical property”: a single-family home on a stretch of Emerson Avenue zoned R6.
Prince said properties on his block, where he’s lived since the 1980s, are essentially “zoned for teardown.” The zoning sends a message: this land is meant for apartment buildings.
“When a property is a duplex or a triplex and its zoned R6, the city is telling that owner that it is a poor economic decision to invest in that structure,” Prince said.
But how fast can a neighborhood change?
At the July LHENA meeting, Schaffer noted the newest building in the Wedge north of 28th Street was built in 1974, and since 1990 only five properties have been changed to allow for more intense levels of residential use.
His report stated: “There (have) not been significant changes in density and built form in the area in (the) past 40 years.”
“Brian is basing future events or future development on what’s happened over the past 40 years,” Foreman responded. “… He’s hoping land values don’t make it feasible to tear down and build projects. He’s hoping developers aren’t acquiring adjacent parcels.
“Hope should not be a long-range planning tool.”