For hemmed-in cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul, the case for density is a no-brainer. Both cities have plenty of room for infill development. And, as reflected in their draft 2040 plans, both have not just the desire but the need to regain lost population, stabilize housing costs and fortify tax base.
The suburban development model prevailed in this metro region for most of the last 50 years, a time in which growth and prosperity moved almost exclusively outward.
Now, as the market seeks better balance between urban and suburban lifestyles, it’s no surprise that skeptics question the best way forward on density. Among the most common complaints: disdain for high buildings, worries about traffic and “livability,” and the familiar refrain that “density is fine as long as it’s not near me.”
Perhaps it’s useful, then, in a comparably sparse metro region like ours, to recount the advantages of including more compact neighborhoods. They generate less driving and more walking, biking and transit-riding. They use utilities and infrastructure more efficiently. They spread the tax burden among more housing units and businesses.
They increase the housing supply, thus driving down rents and aiding affordability, whether directly or indirectly. And they broaden the region’s competitive appeal to new workers and new investment.
Livability? That’s in the eye of the beholder. Some people prefer roomy, relaxed neighborhoods; others value the bustle and vitality that density provides. In sum, adding the option of density carries benefits for health, environment, energy consumption, cost savings and marketing appeal, not just for the central cities but the metro region.
St. Paul’s draft plan encourages density three ways: by allowing higher buildings in 56 nodes, mainly along transit lines; by allowing accessory dwelling units (“granny flats”) throughout the city; and by infilling four large sites, including Midway (a cluster of tall buildings planned around the Loons’ new soccer stadium) and Ford (the abandoned auto plant in Highland Park), where the prospect of 4,300 to 7,200 new residents has met stiff resistance from some neighbors.
The Minneapolis draft is more aggressive and prescriptive. With significant densification already underway on the periphery of downtown as well as in the University and Uptown districts, the draft anticipates taller buildings also in the West Loop and Lake/Excelsior areas and denser zoning along transit lines throughout the city. Most controversial is a proposal to allow fourplexes in neighborhoods now dominated by single-family homes. On that provision the city may have overplayed its hand, but it’s worth continuing the discussion of expanding the areas in which fourplexes are allowed.
Still, the impulse toward more compact, sustainable and equitable cities is the correct one — not just for Minneapolis and St. Paul, but for suburban commercial districts like Southdale, where Edina neighbors are fiercely and foolishly opposing infill housing. What they’re enabling, really, are higher rents, higher taxes, more driving and more sprawl.
Weighted density of U.S. metro regions with population over 3 million
(Residents per square mile)
1. New York, 31,251
2. San Francisco, 12,144
3. Los Angeles, 12,114
4. Chicago, 8,631
5. Boston, 7,980
6. Philadelphia, 7,773
7. Miami, 7,395
8. San Diego, 6,920
9. Washington, D.C., 6,388
10. Seattle, 4,722
11. Phoenix, 4,395
12. Riverside, Calif., 4,225
13. Houston, 4,110
14. Dallas, 3,909
15. Detroit, 3,800
16. Twin Cities, 3,383
Source: U.S. Census Bureau