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:

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Conservation Districts - to the "anti" side

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 establishment criteria.  
(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.
(4) The 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 do both.


At 11:03 AM, Anonymous Alex said...

Thanks for taking the time to elaborate your thought process behind this ordinance. How do you defend the decision to deny renters their right to vote on the formation of a conservation district that could potentially significantly affect their home?

At 10:19 AM, Blogger Robin Garwood said...

The simple answer is that a conservation district (like a historic district) is essentially a group of property owners agreeing to give up some part of their private property rights in order to preserve the character of the area. Renters aren't being asked to give up any property rights.

There are several City processes that allow property owners a vote because they are the people being impacted by the change: special service districts, special assessments, and historic districts are all examples of this.

Let's explore special service districts. They are a system by which commercial property owners may agree to have an additional tax levy placed on their property in order to receive special services from the City - snow shoveling, bike racks, banners, etc. Businesses that rent their spaces will benefit from the services provided, and they will almost certainly pay at least a portion of the additional levy as part of their rent, but the City doesn't give them a vote.

Why not? Because the levy is on the property, not on the business, and therefore it's a burden on the property owner in a different, more permanent way than it is on the renter. The business can move; the property stays.

It's the same for levies for additional pedestrian level street lighting. Property owners get a vote on this, because the assessment will be levied against the property. Renters will pay some of the costs, and reap the benefits of more well-lit streets, but again the City gives the formal vote to the people whose property rights are being constrained.

All that said, renters have a voice in these processes. Renters are able to attend and speak at public meetings and formal public hearings, communicate with their Council Members and more. Remember: the City Council ultimately decides whether to put a conservation district in place. But because they are not agreeing to put limits on their property rights the way that property owners are, property owners get the formal 'veto power' over creating a district or not.


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