Wedge rezoning approved by Planning Commission

A pair of proposals at City Hall would restrict high-density residential development in the interior of the Lowry Hill East neighborhood and push it toward higher-volume streets such as Lyndale Avenue (pictured here). Photo by Nate Gotlieb

The Minneapolis Planning Commission this month approved a rezoning plan that would erase the remaining areas of the city’s highest-density residential zoning classification from much of the interior of the Lowry Hill East neighborhood.

The plan would prevent a developer from building a six-story apartment in most of the neighborhood, which better known as the Wedge. Another proposal aims to push higher-intensity development to Hennepin and Lyndale avenues, the high-volume streets bordering the neighborhood.

Council Member Lisa Bender called the proposal “preservation focused” when she introduced it in July. Bender said then that it was aimed mostly at preserving older buildings while providing maximum flexibility for how to use them.

Bender did not respond to requests for comment this month regarding the proposal.

The Wedge is a mix of single-family homes and multi-family housing complexes, over two-thirds of which were constructed between the 1880s and 1924. With approximately 6,500 residents, it’s a neighborhood of primarily renters that includes people across the spectrum of household incomes, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

“For a century, we’ve been basically the ideal of what an urban neighborhood should be,” Saralyn Romanishan, a neighborhood association board member, said.

The city’s first few zoning codes allowed for high-density development in the Wedge. That changed in 1975, when the city rezoned a large portion of the neighborhood south of 24th Street to a low-density classification. The neighborhood association had pushed for a change in the zoning code that year.

Principal city planner Brian Schaffer and his team studied 325 properties in the neighborhood between 2012 and 2014 for the current project. They found that the area has seen little to no redevelopment since 1975.

To create the proposal, Schaffer relied on recommendations his department had drawn up in 2004. That year, the city and the neighborhood association had been unable to agree on recommendations, leading to the indefinite tabling of the rezoning study.

Most of the rezoned properties fall between Franklin Avenue in the north, 24th Street in the south and Hennepin and Lyndale avenues on the west and east, respectively. The plan would also rezones a few patches of properties south of 24th Street and north of 28th Street.

The plan would rezone about 300 parcels, most from the R6 zoning district down to R5 or R4. The R6 and R5 designations are the city’s high-density residential zoning districts, but R5 limits buildings to four stories and requires a smaller building footprint. R6 also allows for six-story buildings.

The city considers R4 medium density. The designation allows for four-story buildings but requires each unit to be at least 1,250 square feet. R5 and R6 do not govern minimum unit size.

The proposal would place 85 properties out of compliance with their zoning designation. City policy allows for property owners to continue to operate noncomplying properties as usual, provided they do not abandon the property for more than a year. They are generally not allowed to expand the properties, however.

State law allows property owners to rebuild nonconforming properties within six months if they are lost due to natural forces such as a fire.

Neighborhood neutral on proposal

Steve Prince, who chaired the neighborhood association’s 2004 rezoning taskforce, said the current proposal is a compromise between the city’s vision for the Wedge and a neighborhood proposal created back in 2004.

The neighborhood association, which drew up its own rezoning plan in 2004, has not taken a position on the current proposal, president Frank Brown said.

Romanishan said the neighborhood’s population has changed as rents have climbed, noting that some artists and musicians have moved out. She said the association is supporting individual residents who have requested different zoning designations and said the neighborhood needs more affordable housing.

She said she is concerned about a separate pedestrian-overlay district proposal that would encourage more high-density development on Hennepin and Lyndale avenues. That could create a housing bubble, pushing rents up in the neighborhood’s interior, she said.

The Planning Commission voted 7–1 in favor of the rezoning proposal earlier this month. Sam Rockwell, the only commissioner to vote against it, said the commission’s decision on the proposal could potentially look different under the city’s new comprehensive plan, which is in development.

“It just didn’t feel like the right time to me,” he said, noting that the current proposal could be read to be consistent with the current comprehensive plan.

Several transportation activists have also spoken out against the plan, saying it could make it more difficult to build affordable housing in the Wedge. They note how the neighborhood is one of the most attractive in which to live because of its proximity to bus routes, the Midtown Greenway and multiple grocery stores.

Rezoning opponent Anton Schieffer said at the Planning Commission meeting that he doesn’t see why the commission would make it more difficult to build housing when rents are climbing. He suggested up-zoning parts of the neighborhood between 24th and 28th streets to encourage small-scale multifamily housing.

Two Wedge landlords spoke in favor of the rezoning proposal at the meeting. Katie Jones Schmitt, who owns a triplex on Bryant Avenue, said she felt the proposal struck a good balance of preserving historic homes while trying to keep density. Aldrich Avenue landlord Tina Johnson said she agreed with the plan, arguing for preserving the “beautiful Victorian neighborhood while we still have it.”

The City Council is scheduled to vote on the proposal Nov. 18.