Second Ward, Minneapolis

This is the public policy forum of Minneapolis Second Ward (Green) City Council Member Cam Gordon and his staff. We use this space to talk about some of what Cam’s working on, explain his positions, and share a little of what life in City Hall is like. Please feel free to comment on posts, within certain ground rules. See our disclaimer, including ground rules, here:

Monday, March 28, 2011

Urban Agriculture Policy Needs Support

The Urban Agriculture Topical Plan that community advocates and I have been working on for months may be in trouble.

This plan is a key recommendation of the Homegrown Minneapolis initiative and an important step towards creating a more sustainable, healthy, and community-based economy in Minneapolis for the future.

Last week, the Zoning and Planning (or Z&P) committee postponed the Plan for two weeks, to give committee members time to craft amendments that threaten to weaken it. The Plan will come back before Z&P on April 7th, at 9:30am.

Judging from the questions and comments from committee members, it appears that some Council Members might be aiming to undermine the Plan, and erect unnecessary barriers to the growing more food in Minneapolis.

  • Continuing to prohibit Market Gardening on residential parcels. One of the key recommendations of the Plan is to allow commercial, or market, gardens of the same small size and low intensity as community gardens to be put on residential parcels. Some Council Members appear to be interested in deleting this recommendation, which would mean that small-scale commercial food growing would be next to impossible in Minneapolis.

  • Keeping the price of land sold by the City to community gardeners higher than its actual value. When the City sells land for green space, we often put a “conservation easement” on the property, which means that it can’t have a building built on it. This reduces the value of the land. But the City still charges a buyer the price without the conservation easement. The Plan recommends using the fair market value for the land with the easement. Some Council Members questioned this.

  • Continuing to prevent City staff from even considering farmers markets or community gardens when selling City land. The Plan contains a recommendation to give City staff the option to do requests for proposals on City-owned land for urban agriculture uses like farmers markets and community gardens. Some Council Members questioned this.

Anyone who cares about creating a vibrant local-food economy in our city should call or email Council Members before April 7th and urge them to pass the Urban Agriculture Topical Plan in its current form, without amendments that will hurt the local food movement. You should also plan to attend the April 7th Zoning and Planning committee meeting, at 9:30am in room 317 of City Hall, 350 S 5th St.

To find your Ward and City Council Member go here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Potential Flooding

The City is preparing for potential flooding this spring:

This has been one of the snowiest winters for Minneapolis on record. As that snow accumulation melts, some properties will be at an increased risk of flooding. City of Minneapolis Emergency Management and Public Works staff have been working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as well as local watershed management organizations to prepare for the situation.

Residential & Business Properties
Many factors influence flooding, including the rate of snow melt and precipitation received as the weather warms. All property owners near the creeks or other water bodies should assess the risk to their land and buildings.
  • Increased risk properties. Based on the best information available from FEMA and the local watershed districts, the City has identified roughly 30 homes and businesses at an increased risk for flooding. The City is contacting those property owners directly.
  • Properties located in the "100‐Year Flood Plain." Roughly 490 addresses are located in FEMA’s 100‐Year Flood Plain. In the first week of March, Minneapolis notified these property owners that if they do not currently have flood insurance, most insurance companies will not provide coverage until 30 days after flood coverage is added to a policy.
  • Every property in Minneapolis. All property owners near the creeks or other water bodies should assess the risk to their land and buildings. Go here to see if your property resides in an area at risk of flooding. Contact your insurance company to see what coverage you have and whether flood protection insurance would benefit you.

City of Minneapolis Facilities
City officials have been evaluating the flooding risk to its own properties, and making necessary preparations accordingly. Minneapolis’ Fridley Water Treatment facility is at the most significant risk of flooding. Officials there have been putting in place a number of flood mitigation tools to ensure that the facility is protected from possible flooding on the Mississippi River and will be able to maintain its ability to produce clean, safe drinking water to all customers.

For More information
Visit the City’s flood information website for more information on the situation. You can also find additional information here:

Monday, March 21, 2011

End of Winter Parking Restrictions

Whew! Winter parking restrictions are officially over, at least for this snow season:

Effective immediately, Minneapolis has lifted the Winter Parking Restrictions. The restrictions went into effect on Dec. 17, 2010 after snow accumulations narrowed many streets, making it difficult for fire trucks, ambulances, and other emergency vehicles to navigate in some neighborhoods. Limiting parking to one side of most neighborhood streets created more reliable access for emergency responses.

Our recent mild temperatures and sunnier days have melted snow along city streets, widening them far enough that the Fire Chief, Public Works officials, and other public safety officials have determined the restrictions can be lifted. With this melting, we are now seeing better conditions on most city streets. Beginning March 21, normal parking rules again apply on city streets. Signs added to some narrower Snow Emergency routes that limited parking to one side of the streets will soon be removed, however drivers should continue to follow those posted signs as long as they are in place.

It was the seventh snowiest winter in Minneapolis with the city receiving more than 80 inches of snow from Nov. 2010 to March 2011, and the City declared eight Snow Emergencies – a record. The public’s cooperation in following the restrictions greatly aided emergency responders in their work to serve folks in Minneapolis.

Although the Winter Parking Restrictions have been lifted, it is still possible to have additional Snow Emergencies until April 1 (by ordinance the City can’t declare Snow Emergencies after April 1). Drivers should be mindful of the normal Snow Emergency rules and procedures and check the City’s 348-SNOW hotline, the Web, or the many other Snow Emergency notification tools if we receive more snowfall.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Forty People

According to the just-released preliminary results of the 2010 Census, between the year 2000 and the year 2010, the population of Minneapolis went from 382,618 to 382,578, a decline of just forty people.

This stability in our population is extremely interesting, given the number of new housing units that have been built over the past ten years. We now have 178,287 housing units, up more than 9,000 from the 168,606 we had in 2000. So why not more people?

The answer becomes apparent when you look at the change in the housing vacancy rate. In the booming economy of 2000, only 3.7% of housing units were vacant. In 2010, during the Great Recession that was caused in large part by the collapse of the housing and financial systems and the ensuing foreclosure crisis, the vacancy rate had more than doubled, to 8.7%. The raw numbers are just as striking: in 2000, only 6,254 housing units were vacant, and in 2010 that number had jumped to 14,747.

One thing that can be ruled out relatively safely is a change in household size. On average, there were 2.35 people per occupied housing unit in 2000, and that number has barely budged - there were 2.34 people/unit in 2010.

The numbers' story is pretty clear: we had a lot of growth in housing stock throughout the last decade, but then we were swamped by a terrible recession, one of whose main impacts was to push low-income homeowners out of their homes.

This has some implications for the next redistricting process. Because Ward 2 (thankfully!) had fewer forclosures than most other wards, and many fewer foreclosures than certain wards, it likely now has more than its share of the City's population, and is likely to shrink relative to other wards. The wards that were hardest-hit by foreclosures (1, 3, 4, 5, 8 and 9) are likely to get geographically larger.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Mayors Against Ilegal Guns

Today I attended a Mayors Against Illegal Guns press conference where the Fix Gun Checks truck was visiting Minneapolis. Omar Samaha, whose sister died at Virgina Tech, spoke at the along with other victims of gun violence. Samaha is traveling the country advocating better background checks before gun purchases. This morning he let us know that he went undercover recently with a television crew and was able to buy over 20 handguns as easily as he would normally buy "a bag of chips or a candy bar" at a gun show.

For more information, visit

You can also click to urge your legislator and Governor Dayton to keep our state background check system for gun purchases. A bill that would eliminate Minnesota's state system, HF 161, has passed the House Public Safety Committee.

An average of 34 Americans are murdered everyday with guns.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Central Corridor Betterments

The Council has voted on a list of requested "betterments" for the Central Corridor project. These are improvements to physical infrastructure that may be funded by the project if the contingency funds not all be needed for construction overruns.

Some of the most exciting asks:

  • Squaring off the intersection of Bedford and University

  • Undergrounding Xcel power lines in Southeast

  • Upgrading the fencing on the Cedar and 19th Ave S bridges and the Cedar Ave streetscape

In addition, my office worked with the Mayor's office, Council Member Colvin Roy and Public Works staff to draft a resolution requesting a seat on the project’s “Change Control Board,” the body that will make decisions on which betterments to fund.

This discussion does not include large-scale, standalone projects such as the work that has taken place at Franklin, East River Pkwy and 27th Ave SE, or Granary Road. It is important to note that Public Works and CPED staff have already been very successful in convincing the project office that many improvements to the streetscape should be included in the base budget. For instance, improvements to the lighting at the West Bank station and upgraded retaining walls. A number of betterments have also been agreed to by project partners: the U of M will pay for an inter-track fencing upgrade, Hennepin County will upgrade the Cedar bridge, etc.

Watered-Down Green and Healthy Housing Ordinance Passes

This morning, the Council passed an watered-down version of the Green and Healthy Housing ordinance. I voted for it, because it's a step in the right direction, but I'm disappointed in the final ordinance. When compared to the original proposal by staff, it's clear that it's been significantly scaled back.

The initial proposal included the following requirements:

  • energy audits for every single family home and duplex rental, with a requirement to reach a certain level of air sealing

  • a furnace or boiler check every two years

  • radon testing

  • lead clearance testing for all rental units

Receiving pushback from both policymakers and rental property owners, this was scaled back even before the ordinance language was drafted. It required only the following when first brought to the Regulatory Energy and Environment (REE) committee:

  • energy audits only for single family homes, with a requirement to reach a certain level of air sealing

  • a furnace or boiler test every two years

  • lead clearance testing only for rental units that receive violations for chipping and peeling paint

The Minnesota Multi-Housing Association remained neutral, probably in part, due to these giveaways, but several rental property owners came to testify against the ordinance because of potential costs it could place on people, especially those interested in converting owner occupied homes to rental. Despite the compromises already made, the majority of Council Members moved to postpone it and asked that it limited further, to require:

  • energy audits only for single family homes that have received one of four narrowly-defined violations (lack of weather stripping, loose-fitting windows, water damage that appears to be caused by loose-fitting windows or doors or holes in the foundation or roof, or inadequate storm windows or doors), with a requirement to reach a certain level of air sealing

  • a furnace test every two years for some rental housing, every four for others, and every eight for others

  • lead clearance testing only for rental units that receive violations for chipping and peeling paint

I attempted, unsuccessfully, to improve this slightly at the Council meeting by moving an amendmend that would have expanding the violations that would have triggered the need for an energy audit.

This gutting of the ordinance has real world impacts. We've gone from a proposal to require energy audits in the majority of the rental housing in Minneapolis to an ordinance that will, on average, require about 900 single family homes per year to be audited (there are approximately 10,000 single family home rentals in the city). We've gone from a proposal to require lead clearance testing for all pre-1978 housing to just the small subset that have chipping and peeling paint (and that get caught for having chipping and peeling paint), despite the fact that we know that most childhood lead poisoning comes from dust from lead-painted windows, not from paint chips. And we've gone from a proposal to test most rentals for radon - the second leading cause of lung cancer in the US - to testing none.

As originally conceived, and even as originally presented to committee, this ordinance could have made a real difference. It would have reduced utility bills for tenants (remember, most landlords lack the direct economic incentive to improve the energy efficiency of their housing, because utility bills are usually paid by tenants), increased the health and safety of rental housing, and been a pretty substantial step towards addressing climate change.

As it is, this ordinance may make some positive difference. It's better than doing nothing. I'll be interested to see what results it is able to produce in its weakened form.

But we can't pretend that the Council took leadership on this issue. Instead, the Council's role was o constrain and water down the original proposal. Rather than policymakers leading the way on fighting climate change and protecting the health and safety of renters, we actively prevented our staff from effectively doing so.

In behaving this way we are not following many of our own adopted policies and aspirational goals. For instance, we adopted (with much fanfare and self-congratulation) a host of Sustainability Indicators and targets. They include a goal to "reduce citywide carbon dioxide emissions by 17 percent by 2020 using 2006 as a baseline." Our adopted Minneapolis 2020 Goals include the strategies "healthy homes, welcoming neighborhoods" and "use less energy, produce less waste." Indeed, that document indicates that we strive to be "Eco-Focused" and "an internationally recognized leader for a healthy environment and sustainable future."

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Liquor Store Spacing - More Accurate Data

There's an interesting side-note to the Council's conversation about liquor store spacing rules this morning. I share it because it confirms my broader point that the Council made a decision this morning without even an adequate understanding of the facts.

This morning, one of the Council Members reported confidently, on at least two separate occasions, that there were no more than three sites in the whole city of Minneapolis that were eligible for new liquor stores, due to the requirement that new liquor stores be at least 2,000 away from each other. This point was raised to say that this this issue was "much ado about nothing," because the number of potential sites for liquor stores is so extremely low even absent this change.

Well, it turns out this information wasn't correct. According to a document that Regulatory Services staff sent this afternoon, there are currently sixteen sites that could accommodate new liquor stores per the 2,000 foot spacing requirement. Before this morning, seven of them were within 300 feet of a school or a church. After this morning, at least one more site - the one proposed near Jefferson school that apparently inspired the ordinance amendment- is within 300 feet of a school.

No one knows the impact of this morning's action on the remaining eight sites. It could be that none are impacted. Or it could be that all eight are now off the table for new liquor stores, and new businesses of this type will be completely prohibited from the City. We simply don't know. Staff have not had time to prepare a map that would answer this question.

I point this out not to specifically criticize anyone. In fact I am sure that I've also said things in Council arguments that turned out not to be completely accurate. Rather, I point this out for two reasons. First, we should all strive to have more accurate information when entering into public policy debates; we can have our own opinions, but we can't have our own facts.

Second, and more importantly, this discrepancy between what was stated in Council chambers and what turns out to be true highlights the need for good process. It's entirely possible, on a vote as close as this morning's 7-6, that misinformation impacted the result of the vote, determining citywide policy. If we had taken the time to get an adequate, accurate understanding of the impact of this ordinance from staff, this misinformation could have been corrected. Instead, the Council made new policy - and I don't feel I had enough information to even say whether I believe it's good policy or bad policy - based on at least one proven falsehood. This is what happens when we do not take the time we need to get the best information we can to help make our decisions.

Liquor Store Spacing

I thank everyone who shared their thoughts and views about the liquor store spacing decision I faced late last week. It was very helpful to hear from so many of you. The responses were quite mixed, with some strongly opposed, some strongly in favor and several leaning one way or the other.

I ended up voting against the ordinance amendment at the Council meeting, but it passed by 7-6 margin. Unless there is a mayoral veto, Council Member Tuthill's proposed ordinance changing the spacing requirements for liquor stores from schools and religious places of assembly will soon become law. The old rule was that new liquor stores couldn't go in within 300 feet of a school or church, as measured from the front door of the liquor store to the front door of the school or church. What passed last week changes the way that the 300 feet is measured to be lot-line to lot-line.

I want to be clear that there were several things about the proposal I found attractive.

I basically support changing the measuring point away from the door. I believe measuring from front door to front door is problematic, because property owners can move doors to allow, or in the case of school or church potentially not allow, a liquor store to go in. As a measure, it lacks the clarity that would allow residents and business owners to know what to expect. If the proximity of a store to another type of use is a problem, moving the door 5 or 10 feet will not change that. I think property line to property line is a cleaner and more stable way to measure.

I was glad to see the word “church” changed to include any place of religious assembly. Increasingly, Minneapolis is home to people of diverse faiths, and any legal protection to one faith’s gathering place should be extended to all.

The Council did receive a supportive letter from the Minneapolis Public Schools district administration. I heard from one school board director that she supported the change. I was especially sympathetic to concerns I have heard related to schools.
Still, despite these attractive features of the proposal, I had enough concerns that I was unable to support this amendment at the time and in the way it came to the Council. I found it problematic for two main reasons.

First, the proposal we saw was not what was presented at the Regulatory Energy and Environment (REE) meeting. The original Tuthill amendment would have changed the measurement from the front door of the liquor store to the lot line of the school or church. It was this idea that had some supporting materials providing, including a map that showed the real effect of this change.

This was not the case with the new proposal. It was (and still is) virtually impossible to know what this amendment will do to the limited number of potential locations for liquor stores now (estimated to be about 8 citywide due to zoning requirements and the other spacing requirement: that liquors stores be 2000 feet away from each other as measured from front door to front door).
What was especially problematic for me was that we received no information about the amendment's impact on new liquor stores. At the very least, we should have seen a map that would indicate which sites will become ineligible for new liquor stores due to this change. We did not see such a map. The Council could very well have voted last week to allow no new liquor stores in Minneapolis because of the few appropriately zoned area and the large number and lot sizes, of schools, mosques, temples, churches and synagogues in the City. We simply don't know. If that is the impact of the ordinance, I needed to know that before voting for it.

The chair of the REE committee, CM Glidden, rightly moved to send this issue back to committee so we could get answers to these important unanswered questions. The Council voted instead to buy a pig in a poke, voting in favor of new restrictions without having the chance to fully understand their impact. CM Glidden’s motion failed on a 7-6 vote.

Second, I was also concerned that ordinance was aimed at one particular proposed liquor store. I prefer to make decisions in a deliberative manner, when we can get the most complete and accurate information possible to craft ordinances that will be fair and in the best interests of the entire city, rather than quickly in order to respond to one, possibly isolated and unique, problem or concern. If one potential liquor store too close to one particular school was the real concern, a narrower solution might have been more appropriate.

Lastly, I also wanted to get a better understanding of the actual public threat or concern that we were attempting to address with this amendment. The Council was given no objective data about crimes, complaints, police calls or other issues related to the proximity of liquor stores and schools or places of religious assembly. Such data would have helped us understand if our current ordinance was even close to addressing a real public health, safety or livability issue, or if it needed further work.

For these reasons I voted to send the proposal back to committee for more work and, when that failed, had no choice but to vote against it. Both votes were on a 7-6 margin.

Here were the votes. For the Tuthill proposal (and against sending it back to committee so we could know what impact it would actually have): Hofstede, Johnson, Samuels, Goodman, Tuthill, Quincy, Colvin Roy. Against the Tuthill proposal (and, more importantly, for having more information before we adopt such a change): Reich, Lilligren, Glidden, Schiff, Hodges and me.
I should note that even before this amendment, there were few if any available locations for liquors in the Second Ward due to commercial zoning requirements (and none at all in Southeast Como). Current liquor stores will not be affected; and as long as they remain liquor stores, they will keep their rights to operate.