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City of Minneapolis Enacts Housing Construction Agreement

An example of a newer, larger house being built in southwest Minneapolis.
An example of a newer, larger house being built in southwest Minneapolis.John Watne

The Minneapolis City Council has been on the job for four months but has already faced one of its greatest tests since taking office in January. This issue took the form of housing teardowns in several neighborhoods in southwest Minneapolis. According to estimates by the city, single family building permits in the 13th Ward have skyrocketed since 2008 (for some more information,the city’s Community Planning and Economic Development department has an in-depth report on housing in Minneapolis) These permits have largely taken the form of families tearing down an older home and replacing it with a new one. Oftentimes these new homes are much bigger than the previous home, and may take up more space on the property.

The 13th Ward is represented by Council Member Linea Palmisano, who won an election in 2013 to take the seat held by Betsy Hodges, who is now mayor of Minneapolis. According to Palmisano, the teardown issue was the single biggest problem she heard about from people in these neighborhoods as she campaigned last year. She determined that the problem areas included the neighborhoods of Linden Hills, Fulton, Armatage, Kenny, and Lynnhurst in the southwest area of Minneapolis. According to her office, “these five neighborhoods have many multiples the number of housing redevelopment as the rest of the 78 neighborhoods in our city combined.” Palmisano said that city staff, people in her office and the city-wide 311 line were all “slammed” by the need to deal with this issue. She decided that the best way to deal with this issue was for the city to announce a housing moratorium in these neighborhoods. Examiner readers who would like more detail on the moratorium and its reverberations through the community can read more coverage here.

The moratorium kicked off a month of wrangling among the City Council, developer and real estate groups, and residents of the ward (not to mention spawning a public opposition website - now offline). The City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee voted to lift the moratorium on April 3rd, and the full Council voted to lift the moratorium on April 11. Asked what lessons she had learned from the first big fight of her City Council career, Palmisano said that she was amazed at the lengths a small group of special interests would go in creating an “alternate narrative” of events. She lamented the amount of misinformation being spouted on social media about the moratorium. She also said she disliked the accusations, by both the interest groups and residents, that she had approached her decision on this lightly. Regarding what she would have done different, Palmisano said she would have had better communication from the start, both to counter misinformation but also to educate the wide variety of residents in her ward. Palmisano also stood strong on her original decision, saying it “would have taken years” to resolve this housing infill problem if she hadn’t taken action. She also said this was a key example of how the “city can move just as fast as the private sector.”

Out of the dust of the moratorium fight came a goal that Palmisano and the city had been fighting for: an agreement with builder’s groups to ensure that the problems the moratorium sought to mitigate would be taken care of in the future. To that end the city came up with a Residential Construction Management Agreement (a copy can be found posted by Sarah McKenzie at the Southwest Journal here). This agreement covers 25 separate areas in which builders throughout the city must comply, including site noise, pollution control, and stormwater mitigation. CM Palmisano said she was “excited” about the agreement, saying it “will work for every neighborhood.” She especially likes the provision regarding ground water pollution, saying that the goal for these types of environmental protections are ultimately for them to be put into the city’s building policy. Palmisano said the agreement should “cut down enforcement time by half.” She also said the city will gain more enforcement staff who will escalate the fines for these items if they do not see results.

Your Examiner reached out to the Builder’s Association of the Twin Cities and several architecture firms about the construction agreement but did not receive a response by press time.

Here are some highlights covered by the document:

Hours of Operation - Construction is allowed between the hours of 7:00 AM - 6:00 PM, and only Monday through Friday.

Noise Reduction - “All contractors shall plan for and effectively implement measures that prevent adverse effects upon adjacent property owners including right of way.” This provision also specifies that contractors should use loud equipment as little as possible to avoid affecting neighbors.

Contact Information - Contractors must put up a sign on site indicating who they are, their company information, and contact information for the city. The sign must be visible from a distance, such as the street.

Neighbor Notification - This compels contractors and builders to notify neighbors who live 300 feet away from the “subject property.” This notice must come fifteen days before construction begins, and “topics discussed must include hours of operation, after hour work request to use construction equipment, construction schedule, drainage plan, erosion and sediment control, dumpster location, noise mitigation, dust control, portable bathroom location, debris removal schedule, site placement for materials, equipment, idling regulations, etc.” Documentation of this meeting must be filed with the city.

Dumpsters and Street Use - This is a reiteration of Minnesota law, which states that dumpsters must be set back five feet from driveways and thirty feet from intersections. Permits to place dumpsters on a street are only good for thirty days but may be renewed up to one hundred and twenty days. A copy of the permit must be attached to the dumpster, and the “dumpsters must be covered during all non-work hours.”

Site and Surrounding Maintenance - Point 11 of the agreement is a broad-reaching notice for contractors to keep their building sites clean and free of debris. It also describes how contractors must remove any equipment and materials not needed and must ensure their “site shall be maintained in a neat and orderly condition at all times.” This part also states that “at the end of each work day, the contractor shall remove any soil that washed or was deposited on any public sidewalk, alley or street and shall remove any trash or debris that washed or was deposited on any public property.”

Restrooms - This provision stipulates that portable toilets should be located on the “back side of project site and not within fifteen feet of an adjacent property living space/structure.” It also states they cannot be placed on sidewalks.

Damage to Public Property - As the contractor is responsible for any damage to public property, this point mandates that they must “provide pictures of the existing conditions of the curb, sidewalk and street, boulevard, boulevard trees adjacent to the property prior to any demolition or construction.” It also mandates that any damage must be repaired within three working days.

Survey - This provision states that contractors must conduct an “as-built and topographic survey” prior to construction and must “note the front and side yard setbacks on directly contiguous properties on the sides of the home.” These surveys must include “the floor level of the existing home at the main entry,” “top of foundation and structure setbacks” as well as “actual site conditions.”

Ground Water - The agreement requires contractors, if they wish to expel groundwater from their building site, to obtain a “Temporary Water Discharge Permit” from the city.

Complaints to Contractors, Developer, or Site Staff - The second-to-last provision in this agreement states that “the contractors shall maintain a log of all complaints and comments received by the contractor/developer while permits are open.” The contractor must also make this log available to the city.

This was a hard-fought public policy battle on all sides. Certain business groups and residents saw the moratorium one way and the city and its staff saw it another. While it remains to be seen if a moratorium would have helped or hindered the process, there can be no doubt that one of the Council’s goals was achieved in the housing construction agreement. The next step as the city approaches the heavy home building summer season is how to properly enforce some of these provisions in a timely manner and to ensure that the abuses the moratorium was designed to prevent are indeed stopped. Your Examiner will continue to watch for new developments in this story and report on them when necessary.