The 2040 plan’s code switch

Minneapolis brings 2040 plan for more housing into the zoning code

The owner of a century-old, 13-bedroom building in Lowry Hill at 1820 Girard Ave. S. will add a fourth basement-level unit, a change approved under the 2040 plan.

A  year after the adoption of the Minneapolis 2040 plan, which upzones much of the city to hold more people, Minneapolis is ready to codify the plan into building standards. 

The City Council already introduced triplexes to single-family neighborhoods and started phasing in affordable housing contributions from new apartments with 20+ units. Now they’re moving on to details like the scale of a new triplex, the amount of space a building can occupy on a lot and a building’s setback from the property line.

Thousands of people have weighed in on the 2040 plan, and now the city is looking for a little more feedback. One question relates to a handful of “premiums” developers must chip in to build bigger than what’s mapped in the 2040 plan. Premiums could include affordable units, a grocery store or outdoor public space. The premiums are meant to benefit the surrounding community and closely align with the city’s adopted values, and eligible projects would stand on blocks that allow three or more stories. 

“This allows the city to ask for things they can’t require in the zoning code,” said Sam Rockwell, president of the Planning Commission. “Through the premiums, we are saying yes: It is worth having a higher building, a taller building, to get a grocery store. It is worth having a taller building to have it be close to a net-zero building. It is worth having a taller building to have on-site affordable housing.”

For example: The St. Louis-based developer LOCAL Ventures wants to build a 14-story, 402-unit building at 1301 W. Lake St. next to the shopping center formerly known as Calhoun Square. The 2040 plan allows up to 10 stories in this “Transit 10” zone. In order to reach 14 stories, the developer would need to contribute at least two premiums — receiving two extra stories per premium in this district — maxing out at 15 stories, which is the height limit of the next zone, “Transit 15.” 

City staff would also need to sign off on the design’s pedestrian scale, the transition to surrounding properties and the impact in terms of shadowing, landmark views, solar access and wind generation. 

Under the existing zoning code, LOCAL Ventures can build four stories by right and ask the city for a conditional use permit to build higher.

Both supporters and critics of the 2040 plan challenged the regulations at virtual open house events in September. Some focused on historically single-family areas, saying the proposed building footprints in “Interior” districts make it hard to build triplexes and large units for families. 

“Isn’t this just rebranded single-family zoning?” asked one anonymous meeting attendee. 

In response, city staff said that while the City Council is allowing triplexes on all residential properties, it gave clear direction to respect the current neighborhood interior scale. Building a triplex would be a challenge, but not impossible in the city’s lowest-density districts, said Code Development Manager Jason Wittenberg, especially if a builder uses a half-story attic space or garden level that doesn’t count toward the floor area ratio. 

Some residents are calling for environmental study. The Minnesota Supreme Court heard arguments Oct. 7 in a case filed by Smart Growth Minneapolis, the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis and Minnesota Citizens for the Protection of Migratory Birds, with racial equity activist Nekima Levy Armstrong serving as part of the legal team.

Smart Growth Executive Director Rebecca Arons said she’s not opposed to the elimination of single-family zoning, and she supports the 2040 plan’s goals. But the city needs an environmental study of the cumulative impacts of upzoning, Arons said. City staff should know how much impervious surface a block needs so the storm sewers aren’t overwhelmed, for example.

“Increased density can be a tool for mitigating climate change. Agreed. But what kind of density and at what expense to all other parts of the environment?” Arons asked. “We should be able to do density and not create pollution. We can only do that if we study it properly.”

City attorneys have argued that environmental analysis takes place for individual projects, and comprehensive plans are exempt from a speculative environmental review that guesses what the market will actually build.

The 2040 plan, one year in

The 2040 plan is starting to make its mark.

Nicollet Avenue is a transit route designated for higher density, and developers have taken notice. A proposal to redevelop Curran’s at 42nd & Nicollet calls for a five-story, 82-unit apartment building. Across the street at 4220-4230 Nicollet Ave., the City Council approved a five-story building with 47 units. 

Redevelopment was also anticipated at 4300 Nicollet, although “Corona happened and changed everything,” according to a Facebook post by Midwest Cycle Supply, which is now storing motorcycles for the winter.

Developer Michael Pink told Kingfield residents in June that he debated a shorter building at 4220 Nicollet, knowing it would be the first built under the 2040 guidance. 

“In the end, this corridor is going to see five and six story buildings. The fact is that we are the first, but we definitely will not be the last. While it might seem tall for the moment, I don’t think that’s going to last long,” he said. 

Pink was surprised that neighbors’ overwhelming concerns related to affordability. 

The city’s new “inclusionary zoning” mandate to provide affordable housing as part of each new development is still being phased in. It has only been incorporated into one project so far, a 225-unit building in the Mill District that will include 13 one-bedroom units for $1,164 per month and five two-bedroom units for $1,396 per month, plus utilities. 

Several other developers are working on plans for compliance, according to the city. Instead of providing affordable housing on-site, developers can opt to pay a fee, donate land or help provide affordable housing within a half-mile radius of the project.

Another sign of the 2040 plan is the rise of four- to six-unit projects in neighborhoods where they wouldn’t have been allowed before. 

“It seems like we are getting more small-scale projects and townhouse projects than we have in the past that aren’t necessarily on corridors,” Wittenberg said. “That’s been something we have not seen a lot of in the past.” 

One developer wants to replace a house at 3900 Ewing Ave. S. with a six-unit, 2.5-story townhouse designed for residents who want to downsize and age in Linden Hills. 

Michael Appleman and his wife gained technical expertise in home renovation after their Lake of the Isles home burned in a fire about four years ago. Following the adoption of the 2040 plan, they decided to add a fourth unit to the garden level of a century-old building at 1820 Girard Ave. S. 

“The neighbors opposed it, but I think the Planning Commission recognized that we were going to do a beautiful job in adding additional housing in an area that needs additional housing because of its proximity to Downtown Minneapolis and proximity to light rail and proximity to Lake of the Isles,” he said. “I just encourage other people to take a look at [the 2040 plan], and hopefully the City of Minneapolis makes it easier than ever to convert these properties into a higher and best use by allowing more units to be added to buildings.”

Down to the details

Rockwell said the old approach to height has been more “laissez-faire,” partly due to general lack of conformity with the zoning code, and he said the conditions to grant more height were easy to meet. The city has always offered a floor-area-ratio bonus for affordable housing, but few developers took that deal.

“You can get a 20% bonus for affordable housing, and you can also get a 20% bonus for putting a roof on your parking, which is way cheaper. So everybody does the parking one, nobody does the affordable housing one,” Rockwell said. “Where we decide to put the premiums really reflects our values  and articulates what we’re willing to trade for the development community asking for more leeway. So it shouldn’t be taken lightly.”

Premiums that could be traded for a height increase include on-site affordable housing, a grocery store, a child care center, an 80% energy or carbon reduction from the average building baseline, local historic designation, outdoor open space, a through-block connection or an enhanced public realm via widened sidewalks, buried utilities and street trees. 

To boost a project’s floor area ratio, an expanded menu of premiums adds enclosed parking, commercial space, high quality construction, onsite renewable energy production, or a green roof and extra landscaping. Buildings 30+ stories can have premiums that include skyways and public art.

“We’d like your feedback on whether these are the right premiums to achieve the comprehensive plan goals,” Principal Planner Janelle Widmeier said at a virtual open house.

In response, some residents questioned bonuses for skyways and enclosed parking, opening a debate in the chat window about whether future projects should include parking or none at all. All minimum parking requirements would go away under the 2040 plan’s future policy guidance.

Some residents expected the density adopted in the 2040 plan to be more rigidly enforced. David Tompkins said it seems easy for a developer to fulfill premiums that would allow 10-story buildings to soon appear in a six-story district near his home in ECCO.

City staff said each premium is narrowly drafted with specific standards.

“You either meet them or you don’t, that’s the intent,” Widmeier said. “The premiums are really intended to be above and beyond what we typically see in development. They should not be super easy to achieve.”

Many residents’ concerns related to affordability, due to the potential demolition of existing affordable homes, the potential for rentals to replace owner-occupied housing, or the difficulty of building new duplexes and triplexes. 

One attendee questioned how staff could ensure that premiums awarded for grocery stores and child care centers actually materialize, and commercial spaces don’t end up sitting empty. 

“The answer may just be for a while we’ll just have to see how this goes,” Widmeier said, suggesting a developer may need to come back to the city if a tenant falls through. “It’s balancing achieving our goals and then the reality of what happens with the market.”

The process for development approval is proposed to change a bit. City staff would evaluate height in-house for most multi-story projects, so planning commissioners (appointed by the mayor, City Council and other local agencies) would focus instead on approving the site plan. A group that disagrees with any decision could appeal, using the same process available today.

“I think it’s a big, big improvement that in a four-story district you can no longer ask for a 30-story building,” Wittenberg said. “It’s another key way that development will become more predictable. If you live in a four-story district, the sky is no longer the limit about the height that can be requested there.”

A developer that wants to build higher than the maximum could still seek to rezone the site entirely. Rezoning would involve a “significant” neighborhood engagement process, City Council approval, and a comprehensive plan amendment approved by the Metropolitan Council. 

Feedback on the effectiveness of the proposed built form regulations was extended  through Nov. 9, the date the Planning Commission will take them up. A vote by the full City Council is expected in December. The regulations would go into effect shortly thereafter.

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