N4MN is looking for co-signers for a letter to support more uses in more places. Follow this link to add your name and show your support!
In 2018 the Minneapolis City Council approved the Minneapolis 2040 plan. This was an important step towards making Minneapolis a more sustainable place, and friendlier to new neighbors, but it was only a first step. Although 2018 seems like the distant past now, since then the deliberate machinery of city government has been working through the countless details that needed to be pinned down to bring the language of the 2040 Comprehensive Plan to life in a form that residents and courts could make sense of.
Today we are nearing the end of this process, and soon that plan will be realized as a concrete set of land use and built form rules that will provide the legal framework that residents and city staff will consult when deciding what gets built where. We are very excited about this!
Neighbors for More Neighbors (N4MN) has been involved most of the way along this ride. We’ve been keeping a close eye on the implementation details as they’ve been proposed and debated, and advocating for the best outcomes for the climate, equity, livability, and for mobility for all residents.
The implementation of new zoning rules has been split into two phases. The first, debated and passed late last year, involved new built-form rules, which set limits on the sizes of buildings. We saw big wins in this regard, with new Corridor and Transit districts applied along major corridors and transit lines – these will permit dense, transit-oriented development by right in a lot of new places where it makes a lot of sense, and all of this is in alignment with Minneapolis 2040 goals. Importantly, these overlay districts were applied mostly consistently across the city, so that areas near major corridors and transit allow denser development, regardless of neighborhood.
The second and final step in implementing these new rules involves land use: what uses are allowed in zoning districts – Is commercial allowed? What kinds of stores or offices can be built? Can you have a brewery? An art studio? A fourplex? As with the built-form rules adopted earlier, the passed Comprehensive Plan (Minneapolis 2040) includes guidance on land use policies. But in order to become law, these policies need to be codified. And this is a multi-part process:
- Comprehensive plan adopted by City Council
- City staff creates recommended legislation to implement plan goals
- Planning Commission reviews and amends recommendation
- BIHZ Committee debates and/or amends recommendation
- City Council debates and/or amends recommendations and votes
- Mayor signs proposal
During step #2, city staff carefully reviewed the language adopted with Minneapolis 2040 as it relates to land use and put together a detailed proposal for its implementation. We think they did a pretty great job overall! But there were a couple of ways in which we thought we could improve things a bit. And we are working to make our case to city leaders.
First: In the Minneapolis 2040 plan, language was included in relation to how commercial should be allowed in residential neighborhoods. This language applies specifically to the Urban Neighborhood (UN) land use district, which covers most of the city. (And since this is the majority of the city, how it is implemented is important!) Here is the specific language:
“Urban Neighborhood is a predominantly residential area with a range of allowed building types. May include small-scale institutional and semi-public uses (for example, schools, community centers, religious institutions, public safety facilities, etc.) scattered throughout. Like the Neighborhood Mixed Use category, commercial uses can continue serving their existing commercial function. Commercial zoning is appropriate for these properties, while expansion of commercial uses and zoning into surrounding areas is not encouraged.”
City staff took “not encouraged” to mean “prohibited”, and left commercial uses entirely out of UN districts. We disagree with this interpretation. We take this language to mean that commercial uses in Urban Neighborhood should be subject to the conditional use process or should otherwise be more regulated than mixed-use or commercial districts. Commercial uses are not encouraged, but may be allowed where they make sense. This is important because complete neighborhoods include places where people can shop, eat, and work.
Second: This is a bit more in the weeds, but we noticed that the setback requirements for Urban Neighborhood districts make it difficult to fully utilize allowed building heights, mainly in Corridor built-form districts, which allow up to six stories. Required setbacks increase with building height, so by the time you get to a six-story building, nearly all of a standard 40-foot lot is consumed by setbacks. This means that lots must be combined to build taller than three or four stories, and in practice, this will mean very few taller buildings in UN districts.
Third: We noticed that the maximum size of grocery stores in the Residential Mixed-Use (RM) district was the same as for other retail uses, and wouldn’t allow even smaller-concept stores like the Trader Joe’s downtown or the Fresh Thyme in Prospect Park. We thought a special category for grocery stores was in order, given how important food access is to a neighborhood.
Before the draft rules came before the Planning Commission, we put together our vision for how this language should be implemented.
- We think that small-scale commercial uses should be permitted throughout Urban Neighborhood districts, at least conditionally.
- We think that setbacks requirements in UN districts should be eased so that buildings can take full advantage of height allowances.
- We think building a grocery store should be possible in more places.
At the Planning Commission meeting on April 24th, we showed up in force.
Sixteen (yes, 16!) N4MN volunteers were in attendance at a meeting that went over three hours, and ten of us spoke on the record.
We found allies on the Planning Commission, and while we didn’t get everything we wanted, we do now have a draft proposal moving to the Business, Housing, Inspections, and Zoning (BIHZ) Committee which permits some commercial uses in UN districts. The amended proposal allows a number of light commercial uses in UN2 and UN3 on corners (some are calling this the “corner store proposal”), with a maximum size of 1,500 sf, subject to a mixed-use requirement of at least one unit of housing. This is huge! Over time, this will make our neighborhoods more walkable, reduce food deserts, and allow neighborhoods to adapt to a changing world where remote work is more common. As some have pointed out, every residential area is also now an office district, and office districts need commercial services. We would go further, and allow commercial uses throughout UN3 districts and extend the corner stores proposal to UN1 and we will continue to advocate for more uses in more places.
The Planning Commission and city staff also heard us on grocery stores. We are gratified that the current proposal does permit mid-sized grocery stores in RM districts. This is particularly important because along some major corridors, there is no dedicated commercial zoning and RM districts are all that is available. Allowing grocery stores in these districts will, over time, reduce the need to drive long distances for food and improve food access for transit users.
We didn’t get what we wanted on setbacks, but we are working towards adding a bit more nuance to our proposals to address some of the concerns we heard, and we will keep on advocating.
The finish line is close but we need to keep pushing forward. On May 16th, the draft rules will go before the BIHZ Committee, and then before the full City Council on May 25th. We have drafted a letter to city leaders to make the case for our vision and we are looking for co-signers! Click or tap here to sign on to our letter and show your support! We’ll be sending this to the City Council on May 12th so don’t delay.
If you want to get involved with Neighbors for More Neighbors we have our monthly member social coming up on Thursday, May 18th at the Midtown Global Market at 6 pm. We’ll be posting a more official invite in the coming days. Please come out and make some new urbanist friends!