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:

Friday, October 04, 2013

New Density Standards

This morning, the Council passed amendments to the residential density standards in the Zoning Code.  I was very supportive of this change, and disagreed with my colleagues Meg Tuthill and Robert Lilligren about the impacts that it will have.

Here's what it does: it removes the minimum lot area per dwelling unit for high-density residential uses.  It won't affect the low- and medium-density residential districts R1 through R4.

Here's what it doesn't do: it doesn't let developers build bigger buildings.  Nothing in this amendment would allow additional building height or bulk in any zoning district.

The amendment may allow for more dwelling units per acre.  For example, before this change, a development with R5 zoning on a 70,000 square-foot could lot incorporate 100 dwelling units.  This theoretical development might build all two-bedroom units, for a total of 200 bedrooms.  Under the new rules, a developer could now construct the same building with 200 units containing one bedroom each (again, totaling 200 bedrooms).

I supported this change because I believe that existing density standards may in some instances conflict with what is in the best interest of our city and neighborhoods.

Here's the problem with the old rules.  Especially in the University District, we have struggled for years to convince developers to build new buildings with a mix of unit sizes, including small units.  The old regulation incentivized developers to do things that my constituents in the U District strongly oppose, like build apartment buildings with all 5-bedroom units.  It makes sense for the developer: avoid a costly variance that could block the project while maximizing the number of bedrooms.  But the effect is to produce a building that cannot be used by any demographic group other than University undergraduate students - because no one else wants to share a 5-bedroom unit with very limited common space.

My constituents have been trying to convince developers for years that the U District needs a diversity of housing options to remain healthy.  We need units for workers, young couples, grad students, elderly residents who want to remain in the neighborhood, families.  Meanwhile, the City's zoning rules have been fighting my constituents wishes, effectively telling developers not to listen to the desire for a healthier unit mix.

We've also heard for years from affordable housing and anti-homelessness advocates that one of the problems in our city is a relative lack of small units.  Our old rules actually exacerbated this problem - a problem we've been trying to solve for years - and that's silly.

So we used to have a zoning ordinance that added unhelpful distortions to the private development market and had several unintended negative consequences.  That changed this morning, and it's a very good thing.

Just for what it's worth, Council Member Tuthill's argument that Ward 10 is where all of the new residential density is being built just doesn't hold water.  In the decade between 2000 and 2010, the Second Ward saw the second-highest increase in population, behind only the downtown area (Ward 7).  This isn't a question of those Council Members who have no density in their wards forcing a density increase on the already too-dense parts of the city.

One last thing.  CM Tuthill attempted to tie this ordinance change to the fact that apartment dwellers usually have to pay for off-street parking places.  This argument didn't make sense to me, for two main reasons.  First, the City has no regulations on the cost of private off-street parking.  We can't, shouldn't, and don't tell apartment owners how much to charge their tenants for parking places.  Second, the City has adopted several goals tied to decreasing the use of single-occupancy automobiles.  We want more people using transit, riding bikes, walking, car-sharing, car-pooling, etc., in order to reduce climate change impacts, increase public health, and build vital communities.  It's good that apartment owners don't subsidize driving by giving away parking places for free to every tenant.  And that has very little to do with the size of dwelling units.


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