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How Minneapolis’s radical zoning plan becomes policy

Advancing the Minneapolis 2040 blueprint will rest on the same community engagement that helped it get passed by city council

When the Minneapolis city council approved a new comprehensive plan for denser development last month local leaders celebrated the progressive blueprint for future growth. The initiative turned Twin Cities planning into a national news story—“the most wonderful plan of the year,” “Minnesota nice in action”—and made zoning history with a bold gesture that frankly acknowledged the history of discrimination tied to land-use policy.

The media attention before and after the holidays has given proponents and planners a chance to “enjoy the afterglow,” says Heather Worthington, the city’s director of long-range planning and a co-author of the Minneapolis 2040 plan.

Cities large and small from North Carolina to California have contacted Minneapolis officials to learn more about the set of 14 policy proposals which would upzone nearly the entire city, allowing taller buildings with more units to be built in areas that previously only contained single-family homes.

But despite the accolades, Worthington and her colleagues are well aware of the work that now needs to be done to realize the plan’s vision.

“It’s not enough to write a plan like this, it’s also about doing the difficult policy work and development,” she says. “That’s the phase we’re in, looking out for 2019.”

Turning a planning vision into reality

According to planners, advocates, builders, and government officials, the nitty gritty of enacting Minneapolis 2040 begins now. Now that the 481-page plan has been approved by city council, the city begins what Worthington expects will be a three-year-long process of rezoning.

“We’ll pretty much touch every piece of the city map again,” she says.

The neighborhood-level discussions and debates around this process will determine the true scope and success of Minneapolis 2040.

“This process showed that we have a planning commission, council, and mayor who are interested in seeing this progressive plan for the city’s future,” says Lauren Richards, a member of Neighbors for More Neighbors, a YIMBY advocacy group that advocated for Minneapolis 2040. “This was a great victory, but it’s a long process. The actual implementation of this is going to be the real challenge.”

Promoting a new model of community engagement

One of the reasons Minneapolis 2040 passed with a 12-1 vote in city council on December 7 was the strength of its grassroots support. A variety of community groups aligned around shared goals of improving equity, increasing transit access, adding affordable housing, and reducing carbon emissions.

That majority support, however, came after months of very vocal debate mirroring the various pitfalls of planning discussions in U.S. cities. At open forums around the city, neighbors opposed to the plan argues that upzoning would ruin the character of their neighborhoods, or would be a giveaway to developers that wouldn’t lower the cost of housing. “Don’t bulldoze our neighborhoods” signs from opposition group Minneapolis for Everyone dotted streets around the city. The planning office has received more than 11,000 public comments.

Worthington believes that the more engaged community outreach process used to introduce and advocate for the planning change, which helped shape the final contours of this new blueprint for Minneapolis, was almost as important an achievement as the plan itself.

“It’s not just about asking what people think, it’s about sharing and thinking about problem-solving together,” she says. “Communities that have been deeply marginalized or disinvested in, especially communities of color, will say, ‘we’ve told you a million times what we think, and we haven’t seen change.’ That needs to be different this time.”

City officials went out to street fairs and neighborhood events to engage residents, as opposed to holding the same old neighborhood meetings and talking with the same participants. Local grassroots advocacy groups also showed up to events and made their voices heard. Community groups made a concerted effort to widen the conversation.

Last spring, Neighbors for More Neighbors held walk-and-talk tours in every ward, inviting residents to explore their blocks while talking about what the area looks like and what it could be.

“Having new voice was really important,” Richards says. “That’s what we’ve been encouraging when other community groups of YIMBY groups ask for advice. Pay attention and show up and contact your city council person and talk to people in your community organizations. That’s what matters and that’s what’s universal.”

Local politicians, including Mayor Jacob Frey and City Council President Lisa Bender, who headed up a newly progressive class of local legislators who ran on these issues in 2017, put their political clout behind the plan.

“We don’t have enough homes for people who want to live here,” Bender told the New York Times. “Increasing our housing supply is part of the solution.”

How Minneapolis 2040 will take shape

The multi-year process of translating a plan into a final zoning code will likely run through and past the 2021 elections for city council. Neighbors for More Neighbors plans to continue to advocate for the plan at future public meetings, as well as getting involved in the process of writing a new plan for neighboring St. Paul, which is going through its own planning revamp in 2019.

The development community is also closely watching the new opportunities presented by increased density, according to Caren Dewar, executive director of Urban Land Institute’s Minnesota chapter, but are still waiting to see what final zoning codes, especially inclusionary zoning initiatives, look like.

Worthington says there’s a lot of interest from small developers trying to create more missing middle housing; with 50 to 60 percent of Minneapolis currently zoned as single-family only, there’s plenty of opportunity for small, incremental changes. For the plan’s advocates, that’s great news—a sign that a new era of neighborhood evolution has begun.

“So many people thought this wouldn’t happen,” says Richards. “But the fact we were able to do this as a city shows that it was really possible. You can actually have people in the community who are engaged in this issue, and are willing to show up for it.”

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