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, January 31, 2014

Conservation District Proposal - background and overview

Much of the most recent discourse about the proposed Conservation District ordinance I am bringing forward has turned into a pro-density vs. anti-density debate. While I can see why and how this has happened, and how in some instances a Conservation District could be used to protect a less dense area, it doesn’t reflect my intentions. I am a strong advocate of smart growth and increasing density in the urban core especially where there are walkable communities, connections to the cultural, commercial, recreational and natural amenities people appreciate and when it is located on, or near, transit corridors.

It is, in large part, because I am convinced that having the Conservation District tool available will help ensure the harmonious, efficient and successful growth of greater density in our city that I am bringing it forward and have been working on it for over a year.

Because of the recent discourse and because I want people to better understand and carefully consider ways to improve my draft proposal, I thought some additional explanation might be helpful. This will be the first of three blogs. It will provide the background and overview, the second will be targeted at those who favor this idea and the third to those who may be opposed.  Much more below the fold.

First, some context.

For the past eight years I have focused a great deal of my offices time and effort to help grow and guide development, and increase density, in the second ward. There are two light rail lines that pass in or next to the ward and it is home to one of the region’s biggest employers, the University of Minnesota. The residents and organizations in the communities in the Ward (Seward, Prospect Park, Southeast Como and Cedar Riverside especially), have also invested time and energy in fostering growth and welcoming density in ways that work well with community hopes and dreams. They continue to do so.

I know that many people are talking about goals for growing the city.  This is good.  But I believe that whether we want it to or not Minneapolis will grow, especially if we keep doing our job and making our city one of the healthiest, most vibrant and livable cities in the country.  We all have a responsibility to help guide that growth and help ensure that it occurs in an efficient, smooth and amicable way that improves and strengthens what people value about our city. As a City Council Member I take that responsibility very seriously and feel it deeply.

Over these years I, in partnership with the communities I serve, have had the chance to explore and implement the tools in our planning and development toolbox.  I have used moratoria, small area plans, rezoning, the creation of overlay districts and our historic preservation ordinance.  Eventually this work led me to the consider adding a new tool to our toolbox.

Working with Planning staff and interested stakeholders we have developed a draft of an ordinance that would open up the opportunity for communities to create “conservation districts.” A conservation district is a tool that a given area could use to, as the ordinance says, “perpetuate and proliferate its notable visual character.”

I reached this conclusion only after a great deal of thought, research, and intense experience helping guide development in an area where there has been enormous growth and development in recent years and where residents are preparing to welcome even greater growth and density in the future, and after exploring and utilizing the tools of small area planning and historic preservation. 

My discovery of the concept of a Conservation District was the result of the experience of the Prospect Park neighborhood with the existing process for designating historic districts. There was substantial interest in Prospect Park in creating a local historic district, but it turned out that the regulations such a district would have placed on individual property owners were more stringent than most people in the neighborhood were willing to accept. More importantly, there was little flexibility in crafting guidelines for this local district that would meet the needs of the community while not placing onerous requirements on property owners.

My hope is that the conservation district concept can be a tool for people in areas like parts of Prospect Park who want some level of historic preservation, but want more flexible design guidelines than standard historic preservation can allow. I view it as a middle ground between full historic preservation and no protections at all for historic neighborhoods or areas – a middle ground that might be more likely to be used.

Here is one article from 2004, Protecting Older Neighborhoods Through Conservation District Programs, by Rebecca Lubens and Julia Miller that I found to be a useful introduction.

From research conducted by the University of Minnesota for the Prospect Park East River Road Improvement Association (unpublished report, Alternative Forms of Historic Designation: A Study of Neighborhood Conservation Districts in the United States, By:Jessie McClurg, Assoc. AIA, CURA Research Assistant, University of Minnesota), we learned that Conservation Districts are not rare. Several cities in Minnesota use them and more across the country.  Here are some examples taken from the report of where and why they have been used elsewhere (with mixed results);
  • Queen Village, Philadelphia, PA was seeing an increase in demolitions and was changing in character because some homeowners were inserting parking into the ground floor of row homes, which not only drastically modified the aesthetic quality of the architecture, but also adversely effected sidewalk pedestrian activity and the overall functionality of the neighborhood.
  • Cumberland, Indiana faced a challenge keeping small locally owned businesses along main street when faced with a seven-lane highway proposal.
  • Demolition and alteration of buildings in neighborhoods with relatively cohesive architectural character lead to the formation of the Half Crown-Marsh Conservation District in Cambridge, MA.
  • Northside, Chapel Hill and Governor-Lucas residents in Iowa City, IA saw the conversions of many owner-occupied homes to rentals and were concerned by the poor level of property maintenance performed by absentee landlords.
  • There are many different approaches to Conservations District ordinances. Some are put in the Zoning Code and function more as overlay districts; others are put in the Historic Preservation Code. I found San Antonio and Cambridge to be among the most interesting models. To help me sort it all out we created a staff work group and a technical advisory team that included outside experts and community stakeholders.  Eventually we landed on a proposal that puts our conservation district rules and procedures at the end our Historic Preservation ordinance. It can be found, (with the Conservation District section at the end,) here .

Here is an overview:

Summary of Proposed Changes to Add Conservation Districts to our
Heritage Preservation Ordinance (Title 23 Chapter 599)

To support the economic growth and general welfare of the city; to further educational and cultural enrichment; and to implement the policies of the City’s comprehensive plan through the conservation of the visual character evident in an area’s notable architecture, development pattern, scale, or landscape design. 

Neighborhood advocates identify the historic resource to be conserved, including:
  • Geographic area
  • Contributing properties
  • Historic values and characteristics that the community is looking to preserve.
An application form is submitted to the planning director accompanied by evidence documenting the consent of owners who represent one -third (1/3) or more of all tax parcels within the proposed conservation district boundary.

  • An Establishment Study is completed
  • Design guidelines are drafted and submitted to the Planning Director with evidence of support from at least 2/3rds of the property owners of tax parcels supporting the establishment of the district and guidelines
  • The properties identified are submitted to the State historic preservation office and the planning commission.
  • A hearing is held at the Heritage Preservation Commission
  • The Commission makes a recommendation on the establishment,
  • City Council votes on establishing conservation district

Development of Guidelines:
  • Guidelines are drafted to preserve the values identified in the initial study
  • City staff develop guidelines, with the active participation of community stakeholders
  • Guidelines are shared with community with open, public opportunities to comment.

  • Owners apply for conservation certificates to make changes to their properties as stipulated in the guidelines
  • Design guidelines may establish that a public hearing is required for the construction of principal and accessory structures or the addition or removal of floor area to existing principal or accessory structures.  All other changes shall be reviewed administratively
In Minneapolis we have many unique and distinctive residential areas and commercial nodes, districts and strips. Many of these contribute significantly to the overall character, vitality and identity of Minneapolis. Many of them will likely continue to survive well without any special designation. Others, however, could predictably be threatened at some time in the future as other investments or changes to the area alter market forces.  Some aspects of some of these areas may be worthy of extra protection, even if they lack the sufficient historical significance to be designated as historic districts.  The state grants cities the authority to create conservation district ordinances to help protect just such areas.
I think that as a matter of public policy, it is in our best interest to take advantage of this authority and use it to protect the visual form or character of some of our most treasured, most desirable, unique and charming areas if that is the will of the property owners in that area.  My hope is that by providing residents and property owners with this tool we will promote economic vitality, enhance the quality of life of those who live and work there, prevent blight, preserve affordable housing and affordable commercial space, prevent undesirable gentrification, and, perhaps most importantly, foster the harmonious, orderly and efficient growth and development of our City.


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