I’m working on an ordinance that
would allow areas in Minneapolis to form conservation districts. For an overview of the ordinance’s intent –
and a response to some of the supporters who feel my ordinance isn’t going far
enough – go here.
The point of this post is to
respond to some of the concerns from people who aren’t sure they support the
idea of allowing conservation districts at all.
Most of these folks seem to be under the impression that the purpose of
conservation districts is to limit growth and density. As the author of the ordinance, I can tell
you that’s not the intent, and I don’t think it’s the correct interpretation.
It’s important to understand the
context surrounding this discussion. For
some of that, see my previous post.
Right now, Minneapolis has an ordinance that allows the Council to designate
local historic districts. We have a few, including Frat Row in Ward 2 and
Milwaukee Avenue (which was in Ward 2 until the first of this year). This
ordinance allows the City to place stringent restrictions on demolition or
changes to structures within the historic district. In a historic district, it is purposefully
difficult to tear a building down, build a major new addition, or even change
out the windows.
It’s also important to note that
many of the areas that have been declared historic are higher density than what
the current zoning code would allow – and some of the drivers of the growth we’ve
seen in recent years. The North Loop is
a great example. Keep in mind that the
historic preservation movement was born in response to urban renewal, which
tore down an incredible amount of housing and commercial density to replace it
with freeways and parking lots.
It’s also extremely important to
read the actual ordinance, which takes great pains to make clear (as I mentioned
in my post directed towards conservation district supporters) that the
conservation district ordinance is not
intended to block density (emphasis added):
“Design guidelines shall not be adopted or applied so as to prohibit
uses allowed by the zoning code.
Design guidelines regulating building bulk may be more restrictive than
the zoning code when based upon the notable attributes, as identified in the
conservation district’s study. Design
guidelines shall be limited to regulating some or all exterior elements solely
for the purpose of perpetuating and proliferating the district’s notable
attributes, as identified in the district’s study.”
Another choice quote from the
ordinance (emphasis added):
In its review, the city planning
commission shall consider but not be limited to the following factors:
(1) The district’s
eligibility for establishment, as evidenced by its consistency with the
(2) The relationship
of the proposed conservation district to the city's comprehensive plan.
(3) The effect of the proposed
conservation district on the surrounding area.
consistency of the proposed conservation district with applicable development
plans or development objectives adopted by the city council.
Staff and I have tried to make
clear that this ordinance is not to be used as an “end run” around the
comprehensive plan and zoning, or as a wet blanket to prevent growth. Some possible conservation districts could
see a proliferation of smart density, designed to be in keeping with the
existing character of an area.
So why do people think that this
ordinance is intended to prevent growth?
I think in large part it’s due to the issue framing used by the Star
Tribune. In both of its articles,
it has set the issue up as density-advocates vs. NIMBYs. To be fair, a few of the people who showed up
at the public meeting on 1/28 to criticize the ordinance for not going far
enough view it (incorrectly, in my opinion) as being an anti-density tool. What I’m hoping that people will keep in mind
is that while the urbanist vs. NIMBY frame is a good way to drive pageviews and
sell papers, it isn’t actually the best way to understand this issue.
As I’ve said before, I favor
growing our city. Density is good for
fighting sprawl, improving the environment, promoting transit, bicycling, and
walking, and building a sense of place that will make our city successful
long-term. I would note that I’m not the
only one. Prospect Park, one of the
neighborhoods that is most in favor of the conservation district concept, is
also one of the neighborhoods in our city with the most developed, proactive
plan for dramatically increasing density along their new Green Line LRT. They are actively
promoting the development of 2,500 new dwelling units and tens of thousands
of feet of new commercial and arts and cultural space, with shared parking in
the middle, right on a transit line. And
they’re interested in preserving the unique characteristics of their beautiful,
eclectic, lower-density residential neighborhood “on the hill.”
I think we can do both. I think we can increase the density of our
city – adding at least a hundred thousand additional residents – and preserve the unique character of
our most historic neighborhoods, along with our parks and greenspace and other
amenities. In fact, I think that if we’re
going to be successful, we have to