Mention zoning, and people yawn. And yet, almost nothing has more impact on livability.
A city’s zoning regulations form a pact with its neighborhoods. That pact has an ethical component. It is a kind of promise to maintain the livability of that neighborhood for those who invest their savings in homes there.
The recent Weidner/Ryan development proposed for the Sons of Norway site in the Uptown area brings to light many of the issues surrounding the current push for density in Minneapolis. If this project is approved, that push will have broken the city-neighborhood pact.
Weidner Apartment Homes, based in Kirkland, Wash., with an asset value of $2.3 billion and properties all over the country and in Canada, has partnered with Minneapolis-based Ryan Companies to propose a development on the Sons of Norway site that will increase our small neighborhood’s population by an estimated 20 percent with a single project, a single block.
According to an article by Caleb Melby of Bloomberg News, Weidner invests $400 million annually, adding 4,000 units a year. Dan Benton, an Anchorage real estate agent, is quoted in the same article as saying: “They suck up all the big stuff that my other clients would like to buy, usually in a private sale before it hits the market.”
Here’s what doesn’t make sense. Weidner bought the Uptown site knowing most of the parcel was zoned R4, believing it could override neighborhood concerns to get the site rezoned to R6.
What does this mean for those of us living nearby, who love the lakes and want to maintain livability in the surrounding neighborhood?
The R4 designation means you can have 32 units per acre at a minimum of 1,250 square feet per unit, whereas R6 allows 109 units per acre at a 400-square-foot minimum. If the parcel were rezoned to R6, the Weidner/Ryan proposal would triple the number of residents in one block, planning 319 apartments rented in the range of $1,200 to $2,000.
Those of us concerned about the Weidner/Ryan proposal are not anti-development. We know that this parcel will be developed, but we also know that there are many ways to do so and that there are other developers who have shown interest.
We are critical of the proposed rezoning for high density because it is so close to residential houses and the lakes. We believe the R4 zoning was put there for a purpose, and we’re asking the City Council to maintain the well-thought-out plan previously established, which was meant to protect the livability of the surrounding residential areas and the park and lake system.
Most city planners acknowledge a tipping point on the livability spectrum, and some of us strongly believe we are close to that point in Uptown, given traffic issues, air quality, parking issues and the ecological impacts of increased population around the lakes. The north intersection of Bde Maka Ska (Lake Calhoun) heading into St. Louis Park is one of the most congested in the city. And just the other day, the Star Tribune noted that the corner of Lake and Hennepin is one of the worst intersections for pedestrian accidents.
Apparently, a traffic study was done as part of the Weidner/Ryan proposal, but not during the summer when residents from all over the Twin Cities area escape the heat and take refuge at the lakes. The study, according to a Ryan representative, was done in late September or October. It is also unclear (and unlikely) that the study took into consideration new development across the street on Holmes Avenue that has 119 “micro” units but spaces for only 37 vehicles — or whether the study considered the reduction of parking expected on Hennepin once new bike and pedestrian lanes are built and traffic is reduced to one lane in each direction, behind buses.
All of these projects are going to spill cars into surrounding neighborhoods, and there is no clear plan as to how the city intends to protect neighborhood livability.
In fairness, the Weidner/Ryan development does propose parking spots, but not enough to cover each apartment and not enough to cover multiple renters for the same apartment. So where will the renters park? Where will their friends and families park? Where will all of the traffic on Hennepin go, once there are only two lanes shared with buses?
A good guess would be: in front of our houses, circling the blocks, looking for parking places, idling engines and adding to air-quality and noise issues as well as traffic for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Another issue is accessibility to the lakes. If parking spills over from these apartments into residential neighborhoods, where will people coming to the lakes (carrying canoes, waterboards, bikes, skis, ice-fishing gear, strollers) park?
Not everyone can walk, bike or take a bus across the city, towing kids and a cooler. So if the City Council is wrong, and if most renters in these high-density buildings do have cars and park in the neighborhood, taking up residential parking places, what happens to accessibility to our lakes and public parks?
Zoning includes an implicit contract with the park system to maintain livability and safety around the parks and lakes.
Again and again, neighborhoods in Minneapolis are pitted against developers over such zoning issues. It’s an exhausting process. Many neighbors have lived here more than 30 years, and we have never had to contend with this kind of high-density proposal that would reshape our neighborhood. We have yet to see a good argument for density that is not based on the developer’s profit margin, and we have great reservations about a push for density that offers no clear plan for traffic and parking — only plans that assume people will not have cars.
On the city’s “Minneapolis 2040” website, a rendering shows tall buildings and trees, lakes, buses, pedestrians, sailboats and bikes — but no cars.
Yes, you can shape a city with buses and bike lanes and pedestrian walkways, and you can make it nearly impossible for people to drive and park. You can also, in the process, make a city unfriendly to the elderly; people with disabilities; families who transport children, pets, lumber, Christmas trees and teams to soccer games; men and women coming home from work late at night, afraid to walk from bus stops; or people who have to drive to work in areas where public transportation does not yet exist.
Our concern is that the City Council is envisioning a city in a way that doesn’t take into consideration our winter climate or livability issues. Building a city that serves only the young and able doesn’t necessarily improve the city. A market-driven economy is often at odds with livability, and the city has made mistakes in the past — Block E, Nicollet Mall, even Calhoun Square, which, given the turnover of restaurants and businesses, has never fulfilled its original promise.
Zoning regulations protect neighborhoods all over the city. The City Council needs to uphold them. Most of us envision a 2040 city where we have good bike and pedestrian infrastructure, light rail and buses — but many of us also want a city that plans realistically for our winter climate and the needs of all of its residents.
That means respecting current zoning codes to balance development, environmental concerns, and livability issues such as traffic and parking.
The Weidner/Ryan proposal has been submitted, and public hearings will be announced soon. If this project goes through, it will set the stage for further density battles in neighborhoods all over the city.
Now is the time for residents to speak up and tell the City Council what kind of city they want.
Jack Zipes is a professor emeritus of the University of Minnesota. This article was also submitted on behalf of Carol Dines, Erik Storley, Tamara Kaiser, Kathy Scoggin and Jaana Mattson. All are residents of the East Calhoun neighborhood.