Development slowed by disagreement, city code

Area developers say construction could improve with more neighborhood collaboration and changes to Minneapolis code.

Nicholas Studenski

When it comes to new development, neighborhoods, developers and the city of Minneapolis aren’t always on the same page.

Clashes over changes to neighborhoods and complex city code can sometimes slow developments, but some stakeholders say collaboration and modifications to Minneapolis ordinances could help ease the process.

A workshop for city leaders earlier this month, called Navigating the New Normal, aimed to educate them on how to better align all these interests. As Minnesota’s urban development landscape heats up, cooling tensions between developers and local politicians is key, said Cathy Bennett, housing initiative director for the Urban Land Institute Minnesota, which organized the workshop.

“It’s about building a trusted relationship between the development community and policy leaders,” she said.

Bennett said the workshop provided a less-pressured environment for stakeholders to share their respective apprehensions about the development process.

The city approved a record $1.2 billion in new construction last year. The University of Minnesota area alone — where nearly 1,000 residential units are set to open this fall — accounted for nearly $526.8 million of that figure.

Kelly Doran, the developer behind six campus-area student housing complexes, said he thinks neighborhood groups sometimes overstep their boundaries.

Doran’s plans for a six-story hotel along Fourth Street Southeast were halted by a pending historic designation study of the area, which the Dinkytown Business Association requested.

Inconsistency within and between neighborhood groups can be frustrating, Doran said. And working with their requests can sometimes complicate planned projects, he said.

But Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association President Cordelia Pierson said developers can save themselves expense if they just seek the input of neighborhood organizations early on in the process — before hiring an architect or creating renderings.

Ward 10 Councilwoman Lisa Bender, chair of the city’s Zoning and Planning Committee, said neighborhood groups sometimes try to sway developers more than they should. But she agreed with Pierson and said that developers can avoid roadblocks if they consult residents at a development’s initial stages, though she acknowledged that’s a time-consuming task.

But sometimes, Bender said, neighborhood groups may suggest only simple adjustments for details developers may not consider, like traffic flow or placement of outdoor lighting.

The Marcy-Holmes group is candid with developers to ensure new projects expand on the area’s existing character area, Pierson said.

“Developers are key partners with the neighborhood in making our vision real,” she said.

Not just a local problem

Battles between neighborhoods and developers over how to build upon a plot of land aren’t unique to Minneapolis.

Michigan State University’s hometown of East Lansing has experienced a similar uptick in demand for student housing in the last decade, said Tim Dempsey, director of planning, building and development for the city.

There’s frequent opposition to proposed developments, Dempsey said, fueled by fears that a denser student population will bring more noise and crime, particularly in areas with single-family homes.

A complex city code in Minneapolis

Ward 2 Councilman Cam Gordon said Minneapolis’ complex approval process may deter some developers from building in the city.

The added hassle of dealing with Minneapolis’ neighborhood groups can dull the gleam in some developer’s eyes, said Max Musicant, a panelist at the workshop and owner of the Musicant Group, a Twin Cities consulting firm. He said a streamlined code could help encourage more developers.

Developing in the suburbs — where neighborhood organizations are rare and the approval process is streamlined — can be more appealing to developers, Gordon said.

Bender said lack of clarity in city ordinances also means leaders sometimes have to make development decisions on a case-by-case basis. And while she said some facets of development can’t be covered by blanket rules, she said clearer, standardized city regulations may be necessary.