Time to change Minneapolis zoning codes

Although the topic can be complex, zoning codes are important and need to be modernized.

Chris Iverson

The word “zoning” conjures images of long-winded meetings and jargon-filled laws. TV shows like “Family Guy” and “Parks & Recreation” have even made fun of zoning’s tedious stereotype. We have these images, but have you ever actually been to a neighborhood zoning meeting?

Yes, zoning may be boring to many, but it’s extremely important policy. The reason that any building exists is based on an underlying zoning code. Unfortunately, it’s also the reason there is an old house right next to The Chateau, a massive 1970s-style building in Dinkytown.

Minneapolis uses a traditional single-use zoning code, where an underlying policy occupies an entire plot. For example, an apartment building housing 10 people would normally be situated on a plot zoned for multi-family housing. The building could not be built on land zoned for single-family housing, retail or industrial uses.

Single-use zoning has been used for nearly a century. The first zoning codes were applied to dirty, crowded cities. Single-use zoning helped prevent overcrowding. Growing cities use the policy best because it balances effectiveness and practicality.

However, current zoning codes in Minneapolis and other cities are proving to be outdated, overly bureaucratic and, in some cases, not useful at all.

In a dense, urban, walkable, 21st-century city, zoning restrains smart growth. Single-use zoning has unnecessarily large parking requirements, strict setbacks from sidewalks and other nitpicky standards. In order to build a smart city, officials need to change these policies.

Enter the code of the future: form-based zoning.

Form-based code differs from single-use code in that it focuses more on enhancing the urban form than abiding by land-use laws. Officials have adopted form-based zoning codes in several key neighborhood nodes around the country.

To put it in simple terms, think back to your days playing “SimCity.”

The game employs single-use zoning as its main development tool. The game allows players to lay colored squares over land resembling residential, commercial and industrial uses. This usually results in some areas hosting a tall office building next to a car dealership. If the game used form-based code, the player would be able to place some type of building over a plot rather than assigning a color (zoning) to it. Eventually, when the market would have demand for a certain use, that type of building would pop up. This would allow for dense downtown areas to be built more predictably without random gas stations and restaurants.

Form-based code essentially creates a win-win situation for developers and city officials that want build to a certain aesthetic. By creating an area’s form based on how the building looks rather than height or population density, developers are more likely to create a plan that abides by the policy. This saves time and money for both the plan-creating developer and the plan-reviewing city official.

This type of zoning has been successful in certain locations around the country, including Denver, San Francisco and Arlington, Va.

In Denver, zoning change requests decreased from 55 to 13 between 2009 and 2010 due to their new form-based zoning codes.

The notion is gaining traction in Minneapolis. Mayoral candidate Cam Winton mentioned form-based code during his campaign. Some local advocates used form-based zoning in arguing for city planning strategies.

In the local realm, form-based code could allow Dinkytown to grow effectively.

The controversy over Venue at Dinkytown, the apartment under construction where House of Hanson once stood, is rooted to conflicts over zoning changes. In order to build the mixed-use project, developer Opus Group had to petition the city to change the single-use zone. The project will have a good urban layout that enhances the area. However, the root of the controversy didn’t lie entirely in the project itself, but rather the requirement to change the zoning.

Form-based code would prevent conflict by setting precise guidelines for what the building should look like aesthetically rather than abiding by strict single-use policies.

Minneapolis city planner Haila Maze said she and other planners are revealing their recommendations for the Dinkytown small-area plan at the Varsity Theater on Monday night.

The city should consider deploying form-based zoning practices in Dinkytown to build the commercial node based on appearance rather than ingrained land-use requirements.

Concerning citywide zoning policy, I would recommend that the Minneapolis planning department deploy form-based strategies in certain urban nodes of the city to encourage smart growth and catalyze the development process.