This blog started as a distraction from insomnia, and ever since has been consistent in its fecklessness, skipping from topic to topic and dropping themes like a child does an old toy. As much as I’d like to stick to my guns, it’s time to pick up again a series I started several months ago, the Downtown Potential Population Project.
I think I gave fair warning that I’m obsessed with the idea that having a substantial urban population could change this city in important ways. For as long as I’ve been alive, urban living in Minnesota has just meant parking on the street, or maybe walking to the bar sometimes. The recent ACS numbers estimate a downtown inside-the-freeway population of just under 30,000 (which I think undercounts the new growth in the Mill District and the North Loop). What happens to perceptions of urbanism when that population is 100,000, or 130,000?
Even though many parts of Minneapolis would benefit from a change towards urban living (i.e. walking places and talking to your neighbors every once in a while), the part of town where that is most politically feasible is Downtown. There are many obstacles in the way of the density that would be required for urban living, foremost of which may be that zoning in most undeveloped parts of Downtown still limits building heights to 4 stories. There is a new downtown residential zoning district under development in Minneapolis that would allow buildings up to 10 stories, but it is not being proposed for the area with the most potential, East Downtown. Of course, Minneapolis has always governed by exception, so this is all a theoretical exercise.
Anyway, my project was on hold because I wasn’t sure what a good estimate for future density would be. To that end, I’ve compiled units per acre density statistics for 350 multi-family buildings of post-war vintage in Minneapolis. Obviously that falls far short of the total number of buildings, but I think I’ve gotten just about every building built downtown since 1945. I counted buildings with retail on the ground-floor (though I didn’t differentiate them), but I didn’t count buildings that had a substantial mixed-use element, like Calhoun Beach Club (although now that I think about it, the Ivy Building and Centre Village are notable exceptions, as is Riverside Plaza).
I’ve found that my estimate of 110 units/per acre is pretty reasonable for Downtown:
Obviously some of these neighborhoods have a pretty small sample size; there is really only one post-war residential building in East Downtown, and the Core, the Gateway, and Harmon Place have only a handful (the Warehouse District has more, I think, but they are mixed-use). I was, however, surprised at the low density of the Mill District. That neighborhood is hampered by low-rise new development (there is that 4 story height limit in the C3A zoning district) and by the luxury income-bracket prevalent there, which requires large unit sizes and therefore a smaller total of units in each building. The North Loop was more of a surprise: the neighborhood is mostly high-density, but has a couple very low density developments (the Landings and Renaissance on the River) dragging the average down. (It should be noted that I averaged by building, not by unit. This is important in the North Loop, where the 348 unit River Station development, at 51 units/acre, may have pulled down the average a bit.)
There wasn’t much temporal variation in average density Downtown; instead it was all high density except for some of the very high-income buildings. In the rest of the city, however, the density was very much tied to the year built:
Except for an anomalous spike in 1952 (because of the very high-density Park Terrace Apartments in Loring Park), the 50s and 60s built in the 50-80 units per acre range. Then from 1970-77 there was a period of very high density that peaked at 156 units/acre and didn’t go below 95 units/acre. It should be noted that the high-density construction actually began in the mid-60s (thanks mostly to the Minneapolis HRA’s public housing developments), and the high densities in the 70s reflect the decline in medium-density construction, so that the few buildings built were very high-density.
The late 70s and 80s were volatile, with most years in the 30-60 units/acre range, but quite a few in triple digits. The 90s is what I call the anti-urban decade. I had trouble finding any multi-family buildings of this vintage, and most of what I found were townhouses, which explains the trough in average density. The census actually shows a population increase in the 90s, and from what I can tell, a great deal of single family detached homes were constructed, but very few apartments. This is a puzzle for me, as I believe this was also a decade in which New Urbanism gained popularity.
In the decade we just finished, things started looking up again. For one thing, the naughts were second only to the 60s in the number of units built, but perhaps more importantly, the density started picking up again. In 2008, there was an average of 133 units/acre, and that is with 9 buildings in the sample (fairly high for this study).
Again, I think this is a rationale for using 110 units per acre when estimating density of buildings yet to be built Downtown. Based on only the Downtown neighborhoods, even 140 units per acre may be justified. The next few weeks should see a completion of my downtown population project – I think we’ll make it to 100,000 or beyond.
Here is the year-by-year list – note that the densities may vary from the charts above due to the addition of buildings subsequently (I’m still adding to the compendium and have started compiling pre-war densities as well – here’s a hint: pre-war buildings are denser):
|Year built||Average Density||Units in sample||Buildings in sample|