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
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
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.
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 .
of Proposed Changes to Add Conservation Districts to our
Preservation Ordinance (Title 23 Chapter 599)
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
advocates identify the historic resource to be conserved, including:
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.
- Contributing properties
- Historic values and characteristics that the community is looking to preserve.
- 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.