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Minneapolis City Council Member Palmisano announces tear down moratorium

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

The Minneapolis City Council has only been on the job for two months, but they have already faced one of their greatest tests since taking office in January. This issue has taken 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 CM Palmisano, the teardown issue was the single biggest problem she heard about from people in these neighborhoods as she campaigned last year. She stated that “redevelopment occurring at levels far surpassing any in recent history…astounding to consider that there are already 31 SFH demo and rebuild projects in the pipeline for 2014 and we haven’t even hit construction season.” She also stated that these construction zones often are “not a safe environment,” especially when they are by schools. 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.” Your Examiner spoke with several residents of these neighborhoods to get their opinions on the issue.

Felicity Britton, executive director of the neighborhood nonprofit Linden Hills Power & Light, said that while she has been “lucky” that builders near her have been “thoughtful and responsive” she has “lived on three different streets and there's been one or more tear downs on each.” She also stated:

I've heard over and over again from other families and realtors that new families can't find homes in Linden Hills because builders are buying up everything that's reasonably priced. The smaller homes are torn down and replaced with homes in the $600-900,000 range. On my street a 1,200 sq ft house sold to a builder for $240,000. It's being replaced with a 2,630 sq ft house with no yard listed at $935,000.

Keiko Veasey, 14-year resident of Linden Hills and BLEND Award committee member, gave her view of the neighborhood leading up to the moratorium:

In the past year or so, it appeared that there were a lot of tear-downs in the neighborhood. Some of the construction sites and new houses were great, but it appeared that a good number were not designs that fit in well with the particular block they were on. I've noticed that housing stock varies quite a bit block-to-block, but that on any particular block, scale and design are relatively consistent. So, a house that is way out-of-scale on one block might actually work ok on another block of the neighborhood.

There are also significant safety issues associated with having so many construction sites in close proximity. Dumpsters can make it difficult for 2 cars to pass on a street, as well as the impaired sight lines for pedestrians and drivers - and it just gets worse with multiple dumpsters! I worry about the water quality of our lakes with so much construction sites in neighborhoods where all storm sewers drain directly to the lakes, not the mention the noise, dust, disruption, and inconvenience imposed on neighbors. The direct negative impact on neighbors can be substantial, and for an extended period of time as well. While lots of the builders are responsible and considerate, many of them are operating on such a tight margin and it appears they are cutting corners in regards to maintaining their site and being considerate of neighbors - because after all, they aren't the ones who will have to live next to those neighbors when the project is completed!

Jim Tincher, chairman of the Fulton Neighborhood Association, said that the teardown situation is the “second biggest issue in the neighborhood” behind airplane noise. He said that while “it’s great that people want to move here,” the “housing stock is old.” He stated that oftentimes people will move into a “small home” with the goal of turning it into a bigger one. MPR News reported that teardowns in the Fulton neighborhood have risen from 3 in 2011 to 26 this year.

Rick Hellweg, a self-described “semi-retired” lawyer and resident of the Fulton neighborhood, explained his situation in an email to the City Council:

It was with great dread that I anticipated the spring and summer, where our once peaceful and quaint neighborhood would once more be transformed into a construction war zone. Last summer two homes, one directly across the street and the other across the alley from me were demolished. Every morning by seven sharp we were awakened to the sounds of bulldozers, bobcats (with the incessant obnoxious beeping), stump removers and a cacophony of all varieties of saws power tools and hammering. This was a nightmare for parents with sleeping infants, night workers and others whose schedule does not permit rising at the crack of dawn. For most of the summer I moved a cot into my basement where at least the sound was better insulated. The trucks continually crowding the streets caused not only a racket but a real safety issue as well. My block is populated with young children riding bikes and skateboards up and down the alleys. I witnessed a young boy on a scooter almost hit by a large truck barreling up the alley.

In a follow-up interview, Mr. Hellweg stated that this issue has occurred for the past “10 to 12 years” and that he’s seen most of what he described as “monster houses” after the 2008 economic crisis. He said that as a musician, the major construction projects on either side of his house have made it difficult for him to compose music.

Your Examiner (and wife) also took a tour of some areas of the Linden Hills neighborhood to locate some of these ordinance violations. Driving through these neighborhoods it becomes abundantly clear that some of these giant construction projects are not contained very well, and your reporter saw at least one dumpster taking up a huge amount of space on a neighborhood street.

Council Member Palmisano found that this teardown issue took up huge amounts of staff time during the first few months of her term in office, and decided to make this issue a priority. She said that “staffing levels within the City’s inspection departments have not changed in ten years, yet that same handful of zoning and building inspectors are expected to stay one step ahead of every demo and construction project occurring in the Ward, acting as inspectors, therapists and sheriffs depending on the need.” Her proposed solution: a moratorium on single and double-family new housing permits in these neighborhoods for six months to a year. The moratorium states that it restricts any “new construction wrecking permits” and excludes any “building additions exceeding 1500 square feet total on above grade floors for any existing single or two-family dwelling.” It also gave an exception for any project that had been approved by March 7th. Palmisano issued further clarification on the exemptions:

If you have received permits to wreck or build prior to the enactment of the moratorium, you are exempt.

If you already submitted completed applications to wreck or build, you are exempt from the moratorium.

If your property is hazardous and must be razed, you are exempt from the moratorium.

If your project has already submitted an application for a variance related to the structure (not the lot), you are exempt from the moratorium.

The moratorium is meant to address two main categories: “problems around construction management” and a “deep look at how we might be able to do better in code or setbacks for the massing, placement, and street experience around new structures.” CM Palmisano also said she was concerned about “environmental stewardship” and how housing ordinances affect this. Acknowledging that “there has been some confusion about what we are trying to address,” Palmisano added:

Is this about construction nuisances? Is it about environmental protection? Or is it about bringing so-called “monster houses” down to scale? The answer is all three, because the three are completely and undeniably interrelated. If a builder digs carelessly into sandy soil and causes a neighbor’s hill to slide, that’s a danger to the environment and more than a minor ‘nuisance’ to the neighbor. If a builder insists on erecting a 4,800 square foot spec house and tells our inspector that he has to put his port-o-potty on the boulevard because the house has swallowed the entire yard that used to be there—a yard that once supported an old oak tree—that’s not something that fits neatly into one problem category.

CM Palmisano followed up the passing of the moratorium with a visit to the community associations in each of the affected neighborhoods, where she gave a presentation about the reasoning behind it. She also had plenty of feedback from residents at these meetings.

Ms. Britton, of Linden Hills Power & Light, said that some of the issues she hopes are addressed with the moratorium include: “finding a balance between refreshing housing stock and pricing the middle class out of the neighborhood” and “seeing builders really work to fit in with the surrounding houses. I would like to see energy efficiency regulations introduced. I'd like to see responsible reuse of demolition material- construction and demolition debris accounts for about 40% of landfill waste.” She also mentioned that, “I think the replacement of lower value homes with houses that are two and three times the price is really sad. If people want a $600,000-$1 million+ house, close to the lakes, there are 95 currently for sale in Edina that they could choose from without depriving a family of a $240-300,000 house.”

Ms. Veasey, of Linden Hills, said that “I do think some stricter guidelines about blending in with existing housing stock would be beneficial. I'd also like to see more eco-friendly design and sustainable building practices required for tear-down projects - such as energy efficiency, construction material recycling, water conservation and local sourcing. Existing ordinances for construction zones also need to be more fully and fairly enforced.”

Mr. Hellweg, of the Fulton neighborhood, said he hopes the moratorium addresses the “noise and hours” of construction, mentioning that when it starts up around 7:00 AM his “bed is shaking.” He said he would like to see construction allowed to start an hour later, at 8:00 AM. He would also like to see the “height scaled back” on many of the projects, saying the “30 foot limit is unrealistic.” Finally, he said he would like to see some kind of “procedure for communication with the neighbors” before construction begins.

CM Palmisano proposed the moratorium to the City Council on March 7th and it was passed unanimously. A FAQ issued by Palmisano addressed her reasoning behind the moratorium being passed almost immediately after proposal:

My primary concern is for the residents of this ward and the long term health of our city. I am a big believer in transparent government. At the same time, there are significant downsides to announcing an impending moratorium before it’s enacted. If we had telegraphed this moratorium in advance, we anticipated the reaction would have been a rush on wrecking permits. This is exactly what the City of Edina saw just before their code was tightened recently. This would have created even more distress for the very residents already impacted. We would never choose to cause a rush on the exact behavior we are working to modify. Unanimous consent is the same mechanism by which we have had moratoria put in place in the past and within the last two years in our area. This does not require notice or a hearing before a moratorium can be effective. However, now that the interim ordinance is in effect, there will be a public hearing and a public process prior to another City Council vote on the matter.

Needless to say, this explanation did not mollify several powerful interest groups around the city, including developers, architects and real estate groups. A public website was even set up to take complaints and to rally support against the moratorium. The website states, with various examples, the different groups affected by this moratorium: “homeowners, seniors, future residents, new families, property tax payers, school children, small business owners, and renters.” The site includes a link to a petition against the moratorium, which as of March 22 had over 1,100 signees. CM Palmisano said that while she thinks there are “a lot of valid complaints,” the city “didn’t do this in a hasty way.”

The major argument that seems to thread through all opposition is this: is a moratorium really necessary to address these very real problems?

Ms. Britton, of Linden Hills Power & Light, said “I think the city is being respectful of people's concerns. Builders with permits and proceed, people with undue hardship can get a waiver. It's not a bad idea to pause and reflect on what we really want as a community.”

Mr. Tincher of the Fulton neighborhood association, oversaw a recent vote by that group that opposed the moratorium, but affirmed its commitment to solving these housing problems. In a follow-up email, Mr. Tincher stated that “we strongly support working to lessen the impact teardowns are having on neighbors – we just don’t feel the moratorium is the best way.”

Ms. Veasey, of Linden Hills, stated that:

The upside of a moratorium is that it treats everyone equally and allows policy-makers and the community to more thoughtfully address the issues without the pressure of business-as-usual rolling along (or, even worse, having "bad" projects pushed through so they won't have to comply with new guidelines). The downside of the moratorium is that 1) it lumps the few 'bad actors' together with those who are doing things thoughtfully, and 2) it imposes hardships on buyers, sellers, as well as our local small businesses like builders, architects, and tradespeople who had been counting on these projects.

Mr. Hellweg, of the Fulton neighborhood, said that he thinks a moratorium is the right way to go, saying that the “disrespect of the neighborhood” shown by developers is “inconsiderate” and should be stopped. He also added that his neighborhood used to be “quaint and charming” but seems to be losing those qualities.

Your Examiner also took this question straight to the top of the Minneapolis city government, asking Mayor Hodges about the moratorium issue. Her office issued this statement:

Mayor Hodges supports investment in Minneapolis neighborhoods and shares Council Member Palmisano’s goal of creating a system where home builders build like they live next door. The concerns Council Member Palmisano is raising about the impacts of teardowns and new construction single-family homes in Southwest Minneapolis are very familiar to the Mayor, and she hopes we can improve our internal process to ensure enforcement of City regulations, set clearer expectations for developers and builders and improve communication among stakeholders. It’s clear the adoption of the moratorium has brought developers and builders to the table to address the very real livability issues facing the people who live next door to these projects. The Mayor is confident that we can resolve these issues without undertaking a long-term moratorium, and she has been committed to working with Council Member Palmisano to move forward.

For now, the issue seems to be in a bit of a holding pattern. The Minneapolis City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee held a packed-out hearing on the matter March 20th. Many residents of these neighborhoods came out to give their views on the moratorium (see this excellent dispatch from Sarah McKenzie at the Southwest Journal; Bill McAullife’s coverage for the Star Tribune also has some video of the meeting), both in support of and against the measure. In the end Zoning and Planning Committee decided to postpone a decision for two weeks, agreeing to reconvene on the matter April 3rd. McKenzie posted a helpful update to her piece for the SWJ mentioning some upcoming public forums scheduled by CM Palmisano about this issue:

Palmisano has planned a series of focus groups to discuss infill housing with a goal of improving construction management and zoning regulations for single-family homes in Ward 13. Staff from the city's Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED) department involved in the study on zoning code issues will be reviewing feedback from the focus groups.

The two-hour long focus group sessions are set for the following times:

Linden Hills Recreation Center:

• Sat., March 29 at 2:00 p.m.

• Tues., April 8 at 8:00 a.m.

Pershing Park:

• Sat., April 5 at 10:00 a.m.

• Thurs., April 10 at 8:00 a.m.

Those interested in participating should contact or call 612-673-3199 by Friday, March 21.

The debate over this issue is far from over, as the moratorium could last as long as six months or even a year while the city studies the effects of the myriad of teardowns in these neighborhoods. CM Palmisano issued this statement to the Examiner about the issue:

We want to grow our city, and growth means density. This argument isn’t about adding density to the 13th Ward or not adding density—it’s about the net effect of replacing modest single-family homes with larger single-family homes. We are housing the same number of people on a greater amount of land. We are removing trees and adding more impervious surface. With less land and fewer trees to absorb water and “hundred year storms” occurring every few years, we are putting never-before-seen strains on our storm sewers. It remains to be seen whether the increased tax revenue from these homes will offset the cost to our land, our lakes and our infrastructure. There is an imbalance that needs to be addressed….how can we expect to grow other parts of the city if our ward is using up a disproportionately large share of our natural and City resources? As a city, are we setting ourselves up for success twenty years from now?

That is indeed the question, and whether or not it will be addressed by this moratorium remains to be seen. Passions on either side of this issue remain high. While this article tried to delve into the citizen/resident side of the matter builders, developers, real estate agents, and construction companies have their own sides to the issue as well. Your Examiner hopes to report more on how these stakeholders see things in the coming weeks. Stay tuned to this space for more coverage of the housing moratorium and all those affected.

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