Court Blocks Minneapolis Single-Family Zoning Abolition

The City of Minneapolis “cannot enforce its controversial long-range plan eliminating single-family zoning, but it could do so in the future if it meets certain conditions, a Hennepin County district judge ruled Wednesday in a lawsuit brought by a trio of environmental organizations.” According to Susan Du and Liz Navratil of the Star Tribune, Smart Growth Minneapolis, the Audubon Society of Minneapolis and Minnesota Citizens for the Protection of Migratory Birds “sued to force the city to conduct an environmental review, alleging that ‘that a plan allowing the increase in density would likely pollute natural resources because of the increase in hard surfaces, soil erosion and increased runoff, among other adverse effects.’”

Hennepin County District Judge Joseph Klein issued a summary judgment writing that: "The City has not put forth any evidence showing that a full build-out will not have any of the potential adverse environmental impacts."

Judge Klein “criticized the city's defense for ‘vaguely’ dismissing the risks that the plan presents to the environment by arguing "a full build-out of almost 150,000 new residential units is extremely unlikely to occur," The Star-Tribune noted that despite the City’s “extremely unlikely” argument, the 150,000 units could be permitted throughout its duration.

Demographic Note: Like most central cities that have not annexed or consolidated with other jurisdictions, the city of Minneapolis has suffered significant population loss. The city of Minneapolis population peaked at 522,000 in 1950, dropping to 368,000 in 1990 and recovering to 430,000 in 2020. The 92,000 city population loss over the period contrasts with the growth of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, from 1,330,000 in 1950 to 3,690,000 in 2020 (present geographical definition), an increase of 2,360,000, or 177%. All of the metropolitan area’s growth has been outside the city of Minneapolis since 1950. The metropolitan area (labor market area) now covers 15 counties, 13 in Minnesota and 2 in Wisconsin.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy firm located in the St. Louis metropolitan area. He is a founding senior fellow at the Urban Reform Institute, Houston, a Senior Fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Winnipeg and a member of the Advisory Board of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University in Orange, California. He has served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris. His principal interests are economics, poverty alleviation, demographics, urban policy and transport. He is co-author of the annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey and author of Demographia World Urban Areas.

Mayor Tom Bradley appointed him to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (1977-1985) and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich appointed him to the Amtrak Reform Council, to complete the unexpired term of New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman (1999-2002). He is author of War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life and Toward More Prosperous Cities: A Framing Essay on Urban Areas, Transport, Planning and the Dimensions of Sustainability.

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Minneapolis ain't what it used to be

Wendell, we hope you are doing well. Living near Minneapolis has been interesting, especially remembering the smoke arising from the Detroit riots in the late 60's when 'white flight' made the suburban Detroit area one of the fastest growing places on the planet. I recently drove down Woodward from the core to the suburbs. What was once the happening avenue, after the riots, was pretty much a repeating pattern: A liquor store, a adult venue, a motel by the hour, and a church - then repeat for miles. Recently, I drove down a pot-hole laden street with vacant downtrodden buildings and mostly vacant lots - the Churches remain. Pretty much from outside the core downtown area to near 8 mile. Then an abrupt transition to suburbia. Detroit with it's current policies is not coming back.

I fear Minneapolis will never come back, and city policies will only make things far worse. Uptown, a once thriving area of restaurants and theater started going downhill drastically when the City decided to rid the on-street parking because people should be taking the bus and biking. Today' it's 75 and sunny a great day for a bike ride - in 6 months it will be 20 below zero and icy - somehow those planning the cities future think then, as now, it will be a great day for a bike ride. This anti-car attitude destroyed the businesses along Hennepin Avenue long before the George Floyd situation finished off the most 'happening' place in the city.

Downtown is dead - and according to those we talked to recently who fled the New Urban downtown redevelopment, it's not looking so good. The police won't stop anyone unless it's a really terrible crime, and only then maybe. In St. Louis Park where I've lived for 25 years safely, car jackings are common. My neighbor last weekend was paddle boarding on Lake of the Isles only to see her Cadillac SUV was stolen. Minneapolis and St. Louis Park Police took the report, and I suggested she call On-Star which located the car, disabled it, and called the police to pick it up all within 10 minutes. Why the two police departments failed to suggest On-star is beyond my comprehension. Maybe they were overwhelmed. My bike was stolen out of my garage recently. The point is our neighborhood that adjoins the borders of Minneapolis is no longer the serene 'as safe' place.

This brings me to the point: The Minneapolis government has made many terrible decisions - not just my opinion, but 100% of everyone we talk to that live in the area. High density does not guarantee any affordability - never has and never will - why? Because to replace single family with high density means you have to buy-out and relocate the existing single family home owners. As bad as the Minneapolis area is getting, it's not as downtrodden as other major cities (yet). So lets say you have bought out homeowners on 3 acres and you desire to deliver 'attainable' housing in Minneapolis. Conservatively using 5 homes per acre and an average 'buy-out' price of $250,000 per home plus expenses and demolition (about $300,000 a home total), that 3 acres of raw land will cost $4.5 MILLION. The only way to make that viable is to package and shoe-horn families in a vertical tower overlooking surrounding slightly downtrodden lower density. Somehow that is an increase in living standards??? Now let's compare that to same situation in Edina, Minnesota - an upscale area with the same density as Minneapolis. Those homes to displace those people will be more like $12 MILLION for that 3 acres. You can only pack so many people and so much density in a tower, so instead you displace 15 upscale single family homes with a yard to call their own with likely a 5 story condo building with underground parking, zero yard, and no way to be attainable or affordable - casting a shadow over the adjacent single family.

Suburban land in the Twin Cities is going for $250K+ an acre for farmland. Down in Rochester, MN with a more stable economy and future, far less. It makes more sense to have moderate suburban density (attached) or enclaves of single family homes which we can reach 12 units per acre and still be very close to the economics of 'low income' housing - without packaging people as if being in a sardine can.

Living in a single family home in Minneapolis worst neighborhoods are not all that bad, as Minneapolis does not have terrible downtrodden housing - it has crime laden places, but that's City policy fault, not the housing fault. How does being a family on the 7th floor of a high rise with a hallway for the kids to play foster a greater sense of self-worth and pride than having a home of their own?

This city has an illness - the policy makers are treating it with the wrong medicine. Not just my opinion, but parroting everyone we talk to.