Viva Zoning and Planning!

The May 17th Zoning & Planning committee meeting is packed with some big ticket items.  If you’re like me, you’ll want to get your email pen ready to pester your council member about this stuff (assuming your council member is on this committee, that is – if you live in one of the seven wards whose council member isn’t on Z & P, you don’t get a voice).  Dock Street is once again on the agenda, along with the A Mill, Peavey Plaza, and a certain revolutionary.

Conceptual track/platform configuration from The Interchange Final Study from 2010

Dock Street is the most directly transportation-related of the four items, since the basis for the appeal by Hennepin County and MnDot of Hines’ proposed apartment complex is that the layout will constrain options in the rail corridor currently used by Northstar and proposed for use by several other future lines.  Action has been postponed for more than a month, but the recent Strib story makes it seem like they’ll actually act on it this time, possibly because Hines made a stink about the delay at the last Z & P meeting.  They have a point, as Hennepin County has known since 2006 that the Interchange was their preferred location for the hub of Minnesota’s rail facilities, and MnDot was given the opportunity to comment on the project in August of 2011 and at that time said only “No formal comment.”

Peter McLaughlin called this a “Kmart moment” with some hyperbole; it’s not clear that the apartments and the rail facilities are mutually exclusive, and based on the 2010 Interchange study it looks like the trail would have to cross Washington at grade anyway.  In that case I would tend to favor allowing the apartments to move forward; for me and others who use the trail to access Downtown an at grade crossing at Washington would actually improve the trail, which currently has awkward access to the area.  It seems like only recreational users would suffer from a grade crossing, although that would also make the trail more expensive to reconstruct.  It also seems like the Interchange is barely feasible due to the tightness of the site anyway, so it may be more worthwhile to spend the money that Hines would have extracted for further easements on a new study of passenger rail station possibilities in Minneapolis.

I hope they know what they’re doing – this would have been a great place to drink a beer.

The A Mill project in this initial phase is merely a reuse of a historic structure; this sort of development typically requires a lot of variances because historic structures were usually built before the zoning code was adopted, but since the structures already exist, these variances tend to be less controversial than they would be for a new structure that’s built to look like a historic structure.  From what I can tell from the complicated site plan, only a couple small additions would be made to the existing A Mill complex to accommodate a parking structure that would somehow be wedged into the center courtyard and mostly buried below the existing ground profile.  So here we run up against the City’s annoying practice of not publishing the actual appeal being heard in the Z & P meeting, and our only clue to the reason for the appeal is that the appellant is Kathleen Flynn Peterson.  They tossed us a bone in the form of the Planning Commission minutes, where Ms Peterson complained at length about the City’s process and made no comment on the form or use of the structure, which is the only thing the Planning Commission (or its appellate body the Z & P committee) has any say on.  As I mentioned last week, I have wistful feelings for the potential of past proposals for this site, but the only thing I don’t like about the current proposals are that they seem to waste the commercial potential of the location on the only beautiful street in Minneapolis.  My guess is this appeal will be denied, and the only significant hurdle the A Mill redevelopment will face will be at the Community Development committee meeting where the project’s financing will be debated.

Groovy plaza man

Peavey Plaza‘s last stand will be taken at the May 17th Z & P, where an appeal from Steve Kotke, the director of Public Works, will seek to overturn the Historic Preservation Commission’s decision to delay the demolition of the architectural gem for six months.  It’s sort of ironic that the City is now trying to destroy a historic resource that it claims is too expensive to rehab because it neglected to properly maintain it for decades, basically the exact situation for which the City created the Historic Preservation Commission, obviously thinking only of when slumlords do it, not major corporations/campaign donors.  My guess is that staff is too busy pretending that the bland proposed replacement has anything to do with the serene original to notice the irony.  It may not surprise you that I’m opposed to the demolition, but I expect the appeal to be upheld and our last chance to enjoy Peavey Plaza to arrive shortly.

A substandard, tax-forfeited lot fit for a founding father

Emiliano Zapata probably isn’t used to being the least controversial one around, but at this Z & P committee he may be.  But don’t worry, Emy, that doesn’t mean you’re the least interesting.  Apparently a statue of the founding father of the modern Mexican republic was donated to Minneapolis by the state of Morelos, home to our sister city of Cuernavaca, but no place was ever found for it and it seems to have languished in a supermercado up till now.  Soon it will join such luminaries as my first love Mary Tyler Moore and popular 19th century violinist Ole Bull and be displayed in a public space, a narrow tax-forfeited lot at 12th and East Lake.  But is .08 acres really enough space for this huge figure in the history of our neighbor to the south?  It seems like this might be the ideal place to create Minneapolis’ first reclaimed street plaza.  12th Ave S has T-alleys on both sides, so car access can still be preserved.  Just use planters to block off the space between the alleys and Lake St and you’ll have something closer to the grand plaza Zapata deserves (but small enough to program the smaller, temporary uses suited to reclaimed space without feeling too empty).

More space to roam for Zapata

Reclaiming street space for recreation and biking and walking?  Sounds like I tied it back in to transportation.  Viva Zoning and Planning!

Let’s get drunk and eat chicken fingers

Maybe Minneapolis doesn't have the market cornered on being confusing

This may surprise some readers of this blog, but the emotion I most often feel about Minneapolis is not anger, it’s confusion.  How come we were broke for the last ten years but now we have hundreds of millions of dollars for a stadium?  How can residents protest their property taxes one day and then protest against a proposed building that would shoulder some of their tax burden the next day?

One of the perpetually mystifying aspects of Minneapolis is its liquor laws, which I suppose is fitting for the state that gave birth to the Prohibition.  Those laws are so confusing that even a talented blogger like Anders at Our Uptown took five posts last year to explain them; they’re worth re-reading as the legislature considers a bill exempting from those confusing laws a Northside liquor store that would like to move across the street after its building was demolished in last year’s tornado.

The story reports that “officials” say the relocation runs afoul of the arbitrary requirement that liquor stores be located within 5 contiguous acres of commercial zoning.  The current location, being contiguously zoned for commercial with its successor, would also fail that test, but apparently operated as a liquor store before the city charter was amended with this confusing provision in 1974.

Use this easy map to find a place for your very own liquor store!

The Strib article concludes with a quote from Gary Schiff, who pooh-poohs the need to ask the state to save us from ourselves.  “Why don’t we just do away with the [zoning requirement]?” he asks.  Maybe Gary Schiff has a charter wand that he can wave to make any charter provision disappear, but the rest of us have to contend with burdensome state laws on charter amendments, which get even more burdensome when you want to amend the law to make it easier to sell liquor.  In 1969 the state decided that in order for any city to remove from its charter any prohibition on liquor sales – not any liquor law, but specifically ones that “prohibit the sale of intoxicating liquor or wine in certain areas” – a referendum needs 55% of voters to approve.  Since a majority of voters rarely approve anything these days – and also because there’s no organized coalition interested in changing liquor laws – I don’t give it much of a chance.

Bermuda Triangle of booze

Instead it makes more sense to me to just expand the amount of parcels zoned for commercial.  I first became aware of the city’s byzantine liquor laws when I moved to Kingfield, which is in the midst of the Southside’s bizarre boozeless belt, where nary a liquor store can be found between Lake St and 46th.  My solution would be to increase the commercial zoning in the belt, which is traversed by fairly commercial Nicollet and Chicago Aves.  The 2008 Comp plan update actually considered making Nicollet a commercial corridor, which would have made it easy to rezone for commercial, but apparently backed down due to unsurprising neighborhood resistance.  Still, there are several nodes that would only have to be expanded slightly to make 5 acres, for example at 38th St at both aforementioned streets.  (Actually a stretch of Nicollet between 35th and 36th does meet the 5 acre requirement.)

The zoning in question

I took a look at the Penn & West Broadway node, the site of the exemption-seeking liquor store, to see how much more commercial zoning would need to be added to achieve 5 acres.  The result was – you guessed it – confusing:  the proposed site (like the original site) lies within 5.89 acres of contiguous commercial zoning!  Huh?  You can see it if you squint at the City’s undated and apparently out-of-date liquor store zoning map, this site meets the contiguous zoning provision.  In fact, they could even open an on/off sale store like you can find in your favorite trashy outstate town, since the proposed site meets the stricter requirement of 7 acres of contiguous commercial zoning of on-sale.

Line to line, the booze here is fine

So what liquor law does this site violate?  The Strib article also reports CM Don Samuels as saying “a liquor store at that location would go against city charter requirements that liquor stores keep a certain distance from churches and schools.”  Actually, it’s an ordinance prohibiting a liquor store from opening within 300′ of any school or “religious institution place of assembly” measured property line to property line (on-sale liquor, wine or beer has the same rule but measured door to door).  Using sophisticated GIS tools that Hennepin County provides free on its  new Property Info map, the liquor store development is a good 350′ from the nearest church that I’m aware of, and there doesn’t seem to be an actual school nearby (google lists a Lowell School at 23rd & Penn but that should be more than 300′ away, and has no other web presence besides the google listing – lack of website should be grounds for a school to lose its charter).

So the new location meets the contiguous commercial zoning requirement and the school/temple distance requirement, two of what I call the fucked-up trifecta of liquor laws.  That leaves the third confusing, seemingly arbitrary law, the 2000′ buffer required between stores.  But this ordinance actually makes allowances for liquor stores that also happen to be longstanding neighborhood businesses that, say, are hit by a tornado, allowing relocation despite a buffer as long as it’s not too far away.

Anyone know the real reason for this legislative exemption to a law that it appears to meet?  Is there a school hiding around there somewhere?  Anyone heard Legends of a Hidden Temple in the area?  All the confusion about the City’s liquor laws makes you want to say “Fuck it, let’s get drunk and eat chicken fingers.”  Go ahead, but good luck finding a liquor store.

The good old days

4/9/12 Update:  A new Strib article about Dean Rose’s quest for a new liquor store specifies that the new location lies within only 3.9 acres of contiguous commercial zoning.  Not sure how they’re defining contiguous, then.  Here is a list of commercially-zoned parcels that are contiguous in the sense of sharing borders on the map above labeled “The zoning in question”:

Address Acres
2220 West Broadway 0.82
2508 Queen Ave N 0.12
2229 W Broadway 0.28
2301 24th Ave N 0.1
2221 W Broadway 0.2
2209 W Broadway 0.08
2201 W Broadway 0.2
2341 Penn Ave N 0.1
2125 W Broadway 0.06
2119 W Broadway 0.17
2117 W Broadway 0.08
2101 W Broadway 1.02
2033 W Broadway 0.08
2029 W Broadway 0.13
2027 W Broadway 0.18
2028 W Broadway 0.12
2034 W Broadway 0.11
2038 W Broadway 0.12
2044 W Broadway 0.12
2046 W Broadway 0.13
2050 W Broadway 0.12
2054 W Broadway 0.13
2058 W Broadway 0.12
2064 W Broadway 0.12
2100 W Broadway 0.12
2104 W Broadway 0.38
2118 W Broadway 0.32
2126 W Broadway 0.07
2128 W Broadway 0.13
2400 Penn Ave N 0.09
2406 Penn Ave N 0.07

These parcels total 5.89 acres.

What have we learned?

Urban Decay

Yet another downside to municipal fragmentation is the loss of institutional memory.  Many are realizing that urban decay is not a process intrinsic only to central cities due to their inability to adapt to the automobile, but rather a byproduct of the American slash-n-burn style of city-building that can strike anywhere, but at a specific time, often about a half-century after greenfield development.  Unfortunately, as urban decay hits the suburbs, these fragments of cities are less able to learn from the experience of their older siblings what will combat and what will hasten the process of decay.

So when I came across the Strib’s article on the impending redevelopment of Brookdale Center I couldn’t help but think of Minneapolis’ earlier efforts to redevelop the commercial district at Lake & Nicollet.  The moribund Brookdale is probably in a more extreme situation than the struggling but alive Lake & Nicollet of the 70s.  The connection in my mind is the use of TIF to subsidize a developer to build a low-intensity, single use development of the sort that, in all likelihood, will be redeveloped in at least the same time frame as the structure it’s replacing, if not sooner.  Here’s a statement from the very study looking at redevelopment options for the mall area, 2003’s Brooklyn Center Opportunity Site:

Modern retail development often becomes obsolescent in the matter of a few decades…

So what do they go and build?  A modern retail development.  You gotta wonder if Brooklyn Center knew who they

Modern retail development

were hiring when they commissioned the study – Calthorpe and Associates is run by one of the founders of the Congress for New Urbanism.  After the completion of the study and a plan a few years later, the city actually included an 8 point refutation of their principles in their comprehensive plan, with the brilliant recommendation of increasing highway-oriented development and reducing open space.

What is likely to be built is the exact opposite of the design principles enumerated in the Opportunity Site Master Plan & Development Guidelines (although the plan actually applied to a site across Bass Lake Road from Brookdale, and I don’t know if there was ever any move to extend it to the Brookdale site).  Not only do we get a big box Wal-Mart, with its auto-dependent acres of parking and low-intensity land use, but accessory retail uses are scattered throughout the site, making future infill much more difficult.  To be fair, it is possible the planned smattering of smaller stores will never come to be, as a local retail real estate consultant notes in the Strib article:

“The challenge for the developers in Brookdale is, what are the stores that would see an opportunity to be at the Brookdale site that don’t already have a location that serves that area?”

In addition, complementary stores would have to stock items that are unavailable at Wal-Mart, or that are appreciably better or cheaper than at the retail giant.

Plans that came to naught

What could Brooklyn Center have done differently?  They already had a policy framework (in the Opportunity Site Master Plan) to encourage mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly development, but they followed the old suburban course, waiting for a developer to come along and proposed a PUD along the lines of the Master Plan.  If they had looked at the success of older cities in guiding development with zoning districts or overlays, they could have had zoning in place that would have discouraged the Wal-Mart style of rapidly-obsolete shopping strip.  Maybe Wal-Mart would have just moved up the street to a less restrictive city, but maybe they would have come up with a plan more like their proposal for Washington DC.

Half a page of scribbled plans

I’m writing under the assumption that Brooklyn Center wants to move away from auto-dependent commercial strips.  They have every reason to do so.  From the 2000 census to the 2005-09 ACS data, single-occupancy vehicular travel declined only very slightly and public transportation use increased at a similarly minuscule rate.  But in the same time frame, poverty increased dramatically in the suburb, from 7.4% to 12.9% of individuals.  This suggests that an increasing number of Brooklyn Centrists could benefit from the affordability of transit and improved opportunities for walking.

Brooklyn Center is only one tiny part of the region, and an adjustment of regional priorities would result in better development in inner ring suburbs.  A map from the Calthorpe planning effort shows as a third-tier regional center, while distant Maple Grove ranks as a second-tier center.   Why is our region prioritizing development in distant greenfields over vast acreage closer to the city?  These priorities have consequences, exemplified in the Bottineau Transitway’s decision to bypass existing transit centers, such as Brookdale, in the hopes that new transit centers will spring up on the fringe.

Maple Grove is sitting pretty

Until we agree to focus development in existing areas instead of on the edge of town, the municipal cogs that make up the regional machine will continue to spin freely, leaving minor cogs like Brooklyn Center to make their own mistakes.

Back to the 90s


The 90s weren’t bad, as far as decades go; there were colorful sweaters, Steve Urkel, and bracelets that you put on by violently attacking your wrist with them.

And now

The decade was a mixed blessing for Minneapolis, however; our state’s ample supply of refugee-services non-profits fueled an influx of immigrants, who proceeded to revitalize many commercial areas; but in the meantime almost no residential buildings of consequence were built in the city.  Recently I attempted to document all multifamily and row/townhomes built here in the postwar era; in the 90s I found a total of 2,346 units built, less than any other decade.  Instead, tacky single-family homes were built, for example this one:

In today’s Community Development Committee meeting, the city will decide whether to sell a parcel to Habitat for Humanity for development of a single-family home.  Normally I’m okay with Habitat operating in the city.  Even though we have already have more than enough single-family homes in Minneapolis, Habitat is at least addressing the affordable housing crisis.

This parcel, however, is primed for multifamily development.  It lies a wide but walkable distance from Hiawatha LRT (a half-mile), but it is a block or two from three bus routes, meaning it is ideal for transit-oriented development.

But Alex, in Minneapolis we pretend that you need a 40′ wide lot just to build a single-family home.  So if this lot is only 40′ wide, how will you cram a whole multifamily building in there?

Well, to the north of this parcel is not one but two city-owned, vacant parcels.  And to the south is an additional vacant parcel, in private hands.  These parcels would be ideal for the type of development that occurred at the north end of the block – basically a typical English urban model of attached single-family.  Unfortunately even those had to be up-zoned to R4 in order to get built, because Minneapolis is so eager to become Richfield that it categorizes small-scale traditional urban housing with dense low-rise apartment buildings.

One of two things need to happen if Minneapolis is going to achieve its sustainability goals – either the R2B district needs to be amended to allow attached housing on smaller lots or wide swaths of the city need to be up-zoned to R4.  Housing is a 100-year investment; we need to stop wasting the limited space of our central neighborhoods on inefficient types of housing.  Others have argued effectively that “location efficiency is more important than home efficiency,” but there are only so many efficient locations to go around.  Habitat for Humanity is welcome to provide its affordable but wasteful single-family homes in relatively less-efficient locations, but let’s save our prime central neighborhood locations for buildings that will allow more than one family to enjoy them.

Hawthorne EcoVillage

Coming home from my week-long vacation, I was eager to catch up with my imaginary internet friends – those bleary-eyed bloggers who continually spout their opinions about urban issues.  One of my favorites is Steve Berg of MinnPost, actually a blogojournalist who writes about things going on around Minneapolis and St Paul, and upon my return I found on his site an interesting juxtaposition of two articles that I’d like to mention here.

First, the most recent article is a discussion of the recent CEOs for Cities report called Driven Apart: How Sprawl is Lengthening our Commutes and Why Misleading Mobility Measures are Making Things Worse.  I’m looking forward to reading the report as it promises to be full of ammo for showing how land use patterns cause transportation problems that cost money and lives and degrade the environment.  Hopefully it’s getting attention from more than the usual band of knuckleheads because Americans usually hide their head in the sand when it comes to the consequences of their sprawling settlement pattern.

Which makes it interesting that the Berg article that immediately preceded was about the Hawthorne EcoVillage project in North Minneapolis.  This is a public-private urban renewal partnership between the City of Minneapolis and Project for Pride in Living focusing on a four-block area, according to Berg with a goal of “120 new housing units ultimately added to an improved existing stock.”

Certainly the stock needs improving:  the entire block face of the EcoVillage along Lowry is vacant, along with much of Lyndale and many of the lots on the interior streets as well.  Berg mentions that the first two properties to be developed in the EcoVillage are single-family homes, but PPL is planning multifamily as well, as depicted below in the plan from their website:

Looks like a New Urbanist wonderland, right?  It is a significant increase in density for the area, and should be a shot in the arm for the neighborhood-oriented businesses scattered along Lowry Ave.  And it is an example of the congestion-fighting land use pattern described in the “Driven Apart” report.

But I can’t help feeling that this site has much more potential than the EcoVillage project utilizes.  As the following illustration shows, it is at the intersection of two bus routes, and just off Interstate 94, which offers a visible, accessible location for businesses and the potential for a BRT station:


The EcoVillage area is shown here in yellow.


Maybe the Minneapolis HRA recognized some of that potential when they built the Lowry High-Rise, which weighs out at 64 units per acre (compared with the first EcoVillage apartment building, on the corner of Lowry & Lyndale, which is a decidedly middleweight 45 units per acre).  Then again, maybe they just got a good deal on land (at that time I-94 was just a line on a squiggly freeway fantasy map somewhere in St Paul or Washington).  Additionally, the late modernist design left lots of excess land for later infill.

The Lowry High-Rise is also an island of high-density zoning in a sea of R2B.  And here is the rub about the EcoVillage illustrating the concept presented in “Driven Apart:”  PPL is building it in spite of the zoning, not because of it.  The northwest block and the Lowry-facing buildings, shown in the plan as apartment blocks and mixed-use commercial buildings, will require a rezoning.  The 32 bus, running along Lowry on its journey from Robbinsdale to Rosedale, has regional aspirations that aren’t matched by the low-density zoning that lines Lowry Ave.  And Minneapolis doesn’t have a zoning designation to accommodate the transit villages that would be ideal along the BRT that will eventually be laid over its freeways (and is already beginning to be laid at 46th St).

Minneapolis better revise its policy and start devoting resources to land use patterns described in state-of-the-art publications like Driven Apart, or developments like the EcoVillage will be fewer and farther between.