Evan Ramstad
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The Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan insisted on a bold change by eliminating zoning for single-family homes in the city starting in 2020.

Now that boldness is being dulled. A judge last week ordered a halt to the plan until a detailed environmental review is done.

The city is now mired in a clash of generally like-minded progressives over housing and the environment. It's a fight like the ones that liberals are having in other places on climate change and clean energy, matters where they broadly agree but squabble over details and, in the process, impede change.

The fight over Minneapolis 2040 ultimately affects the city's prospects for growth — the thing I'm most concerned about.

As often happens with plans, Minneapolis 2040 has neither been as successful as proponents hoped nor as detrimental as opponents feared.

From 2020 through 2022, the city permitted 34 duplexes and 24 triplexes in neighborhoods where they weren't allowed under previous zoning laws. Assuming four people lived in each, that means housing for about 230 people. For a city of 430,000, that's not much of an addition.

It bothers me that a step forward in the growth of Minneapolis is being halted, even if it's been a small step and even if the halt is temporary. Readers of this column know that I believe Minneapolis, the Twin Cities metro, Minnesota and the Upper Midwest are growing too slowly — and we need to do something about it to preserve our prosperity.

At the same time, the citizens challenging the city have won enough in court to make me question my priority.

"What we have been trying to do from the very beginning is to make a better plan and we feel that environmental review is essential and was the right thing for the city to do," Rebecca Arons, executive director of Smart Growth Minneapolis, the citizens group that is the main litigant, told me yesterday.

She said the group has never expressed opposition to the 2040 plan nor to the elimination of the zoning for single-family homes.

"We believe that it's very likely that zoning changes are needed to accomplish the goals of the 2040 plan," Arons said. "The question is 'Should you change the use of 50% of the land in Minneapolis at one time without taking any review of the cumulative effects of doing that?'"

The city's position has been that long-range plans like the one for 2040 should not be subject to the kind of intense environmental review that small projects with clear timelines and specifications are. There are too many variables and potential-but-unlikely outcomes for meaningful analysis, its attorneys and leaders have argued.

"How are we to analyze the total environmental impacts based on the capacity of a plan?" Mayor Jacob Frey asked rhetorically in an interview yesterday.

He gave an exaggerated example to illustrate the challenge. "Every single building downtown is not going to be 100 stories tall," he said, though the 2040 plan would allow it.

The city will appeal last week's ruling, Frey said, but it will also prepare an environmental study if the courts ultimately decide that's necessary.

There are two types of environmental reviews that could be carried out under state law. Arons said her group favors an environmental impact statement, which is the more intensive process of the two. But more importantly, she said the group wants the review done by a third party, not the city.

Another objection that's arisen in court is that the 2040 plan might diminish single-family housing in Minneapolis just when people of color are better positioned to buy houses and build financial equity.

Data so far doesn't bear that out. Between 2020 and 2022, Minneapolis permitted construction for 193 single-family homes, nearly twice the number of new and converted duplexes and triplexes.

"The change won't come in dramatic shifts in the built form," Frey said, referring to types of homes. "It'll come in who is able to live in neighborhoods."

The mayor said he understands people who don't want a new housing development in their neighborhood. He's less patient with those who say the plan helps developers and builders too much.

"We can't allow people who need homes to be collateral damage in an anti-business, anti-development agenda," Frey said.

Arons said she and other members of her group have been called NIMBYs, the acronym for not-in-my-backyard obstructionists worried about their personal wealth or quality of life. She called that insulting.

A professional cellist who also runs a business staffing classical musicians for gigs, Arons added, "From a business perspective, I certainly want more people to move to Minneapolis and buy tickets to see shows and support our thriving arts scene."

So do I, and the sooner the better.