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Planning leader brings wisdom from Minneapolis 2040 process to St. Pete

Megan Holmes

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As St. Petersburg begins building its roadmap for the next 30 years through its StPete2050 process, leaders are taking lessons from peer cities across the country to figure out how to foster equitable, sustainable and long-term growth.

St. Pete, like many cities, is experiencing a renaissance as young people flock to cities over suburbs, drawn to places where the cost of living remains relatively low. With that renaissance comes challenges like an affordable housing crisis, gentrification and fear that development could cause the city to lose its beloved charm.

One city that St. Pete can draw lessons from is Minneapolis. On Oct. 25, 2019, Minneapolis City Council adopted Minneapolis 2040, the city’s hard-fought Comprehensive Plan, by a vote of 12-1. Despite its initial controversy, the plan was celebrated for making bold moves toward racial equity, and pushing the city to become the first in the country to upzone all of its neighborhoods, allowing up to three units of housing to be built on any previous single family lot (typically 40 feet x 120 feet).

Minneapolis also increased allowable height and density along its major fixed transit corridors and removed parking minimums, allowing parking to be dictated by market demand. That move came in response to concerns from affordable housing developers, who found that minimum parking requirements were making construction of affordable and workforce housing far more expensive, while many residents of affordable housing developments do not own a car. This is possible because the city has two light rail transit lines, the Green Line and the Blue Line, that run between Minneapolis and its twin-city St. Paul. 

Heather Worthington

Heather Worthington, Director of Long Range Planning for the City of Minneapolis and a key official at the center of the Minneapolis 2040 plan, joined The Tampa Bay chapter of the Urban Land Institute to speak at its 2020 Annual Trends in Real Estate Conference Wednesday. Earlier that morning, Worthington met with St. Petersburg officials, community leaders and housing industry professionals to share insights on the plan.

The city of St. Petersburg recently made moves toward upzoning when City Council unanimously approved the creation of a Neighborhood Traditional Mixed Residential (NTM) zoning category, paving the way for “missing middle” housing like duplexes, triplexes and skinny homes to be built in St. Petersburg neighborhoods. St. Petersburg’s typical single family lots are much wider than Minneapolis, at 60 feet.

The new zoning category has not yet been applied to any neighborhoods in St. Petersburg, but that process will begin in the coming months, according to city staff. Before map amendments are proposed, the city will engage in conversations with neighborhoods to discuss where these changes would be most suitable.

Neighborhoods that would be eligible for the NTM zoning designation must meet three specific locational criteria. They must be adjacent to a public alley, fronting to a “future major street” and outside of the Coastal High Hazard area – or the designated area of the city that would flood during a category 1 hurricane.

Lessons learned from Minneapolis’ planning process are particularly useful because the city faces similar challenges to St. Petersburg. Its population, currently at 340,000, is expected to reach 500,000 by 2040. Development is booming, with construction values topping a billion dollars last year. Minneapolis, like St. Pete, is facing a shortage of housing that is affordable, both low-income and workforce. It is also one of the most racially disparate cities in the country. Minneapolis is home to the largest population of Somali immigrants in the country, and like St. Petersburg, struggles with a checkered history of policies like redlining and segregation.

St. Petersburg Redlining Map

Historic maps developed by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (a federal agency created as part of the New Deal) in the 1930s show historically African American areas in both cities shaded in red, indicating increased “hazardous” risk areas where the agency would not underwrite mortgages, stifling investment and making home ownership nearly impossible for African American families.

Redlining maps near North Minneapolis 

In both cities, leaders are now grappling with how to create a place, both in physical form and in policy, that benefits all of its residents, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or income. That led the Minneapolis City Council to develop six core values that, along with more than two years of engagement, 100 meetings and smaller conversations with thousands of residents, business owners, and others, guided the formation of Minneapolis 2040’s goals.

Minneapolis 2040 outlined 14 goals to be achieve by 2040:

  • Eliminate disparities: Minneapolis will see all communities fully thrive regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, country of origin, religion, or zip code having eliminated deep-rooted disparities in wealth, opportunity, housing, safety, and health.
  • More residents and jobs: Minneapolis will have more residents and jobs, and all people will equitably benefit from that growth.
  • Affordable and accessible housing: all Minneapolis residents will be able to afford and access quality housing throughout the city.
  • Living-wage jobs: all Minneapolis residents will have the training and skills necessary to participate in the economy and will have access to a living-wage job.
  • Healthy, safe, and connected people: the people of Minneapolis will be socially connected, healthy, and safe.
  • High-quality physical environment: Minneapolis will enjoy a high-quality and distinctive physical environment in all parts of the city.
  • History and culture: the physical attributes of Minneapolis will reflect the city’s history and cultures.
  • Creative, cultural and natural amenities: Minneapolis will have the creative, cultural, and natural amenities that make the city a great place to live.
  • Complete neighborhoods: all Minneapolis residents will have access to employment, retail services, healthy food, parks, and other daily needs via walking, biking, and public transit.
  • Climate change resilience: Minneapolis will be resilient to the effects of climate change and diminishing natural resources, and will be on track to achieve an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
  • Clean environment: Minneapolis will have healthy air, clean water and a vibrant ecosystem.
  • Healthy, sustainable, and diverse economy: Minneapolis will remain the economic center of the region with a healthy, sustainable and diverse economy.
  • Proactive, accessible, and sustainable government: Minneapolis City government will be proactive, accessible and fiscally sustainable.
  • Equitable civic participation system: Minneapolis will have an equitable civic participation system that enfranchises everyone, recognizes the core and vital service neighborhood organizations provide to the City of Minneapolis, and builds people’s long term capacity to organize to improve their lives and neighborhoods.

While Minneapolis has received the most national press for its innovation in planning around housing, during her presentation and in conversation with city leaders Worthington was careful to explain that the goals outlined in the 2040 plan are not separate from one another. The title of Worthington’s presentation, “Advancing Racial Equity Through Policy & Planning,” speaks to at least three of those goals.

“Affordability,” Worthington explained, “is a racial equity issue.”

Worthington explained that the City of Minneapolis looked at affordability from a systems approach. The first step in the process was for to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, a step they completed two months prior to the passage of the 2040 plan.

Then, Minneapolis City Council asked city planners to bring forth a housing plan in combination with an inclusionary zoning ordinance that requires developers to include a certain percentage of affordable housing units in their developments, or to pay a fee in lieu of those units, which goes toward an affordable housing trust fund. Inclusionary zoning ordinances are gaining popularity throughout the country, but are prohibited in Florida due to preemption by the state government.

Worthington explained that communication of the housing plan was particularly important when rolling out information to Minneapolis’ residents. The city was met with opposition at first, even from council members who eventually voted in favor of the plan. Assuaging concerns of residents around the design and height of these multi-unit builds was particularly important. The developments are subject to the same setback, height and fenestration requirements as single-family homes, to ensure their fit in existing neighborhoods.

Some residents feared that the city would exercise eminent domain and tear down single family homes in favor of duplex or triplex developments, something Worthington explained to citizens was not just an unlikely power grab by the city, but extremely costly, since a single family home costs on average $250,000, plus tear-down costs and new construction costs. Instead, the city expects these types of developments to go up in currently vacant lots, as urban infill development.

Unlike St. Petersburg, Worthington said the city of Minneapolis never considered going neighborhood by neighborhood with its upzoning efforts. Officials worried that if they chose to start with a poorer neighborhood, concerns of gentrification would arise, while if they chose a wealthier neighborhood, NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) sentiments would be too strong. Upzoning the entire city meant “not picking winners and losers.”

The biggest lesson Worthington stressed was how important the city’s allies and proxies were to making the plan successful. Minneapolis’ proxy voices emerged naturally. A YIMBY (“Yes In My Back Yard”) organization, Neighbors For More Neighbors, was formed by Minneapolis residents who took to grassroots organizing and social media campaigns. They spent hundreds of hours making phone calls, writing newsletters, knocking on doors and handing out yard signs. Of course, as with most campaigns, much of the battle was fought online through Twitter and Facebook.

“We did nothing to work with them,” Worthington said. “We would just put information out and they would grab it. They were very savvy. And I think they lapped the NIMBYs a couple of times, if you were just standing back watching it.”

Read about Minneapolis’ full 2040 Comprehensive Plan here. 

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