Brit Anbacht is a Neighbors for More Neighbors volunteer and a Field resident

When the Minneapolis 2040 plan passed in 2018 it set out a vision of what Minneapolis might look like in 20 years. The last time the zoning code had an overhaul was 1999, so this update is the first one in nearly 25 years. In 2020, the city changed its rules about the height and shape of buildings, which is called built form. The rules were changed to comply with the 2040 plan in accordance with state law.

Now Minneapolis is updating the land use part of the zoning code, which refers to where people can build specific types of buildings like a barber shop, a grocery store, or a triplex.

Last week, the Minneapolis City Council discussed the land use updates by officially announcing the upcoming ordinance changes, which will likely come before the City Council for a vote on April 27. There is a public comment process underway on the land use changes. Public comments will be collected through March 26.

The Community Planning and Economic Development staff is hosting a virtual public meeting this Wednesday February 15 at 7 p.m. about the land use zoning changes detailed in a City of Minneapolis study.

A draft of the proposed land use zoning for Minneapolis. The City of Minneapolis encourages residents to give feedback on this map.

The zoning maps are labeled with different acronyms. The drafted maps haven’t changed much from previous maps and about 89% is residential zoned land, with 83% of the city single family only under the old zoning code.

Urban Neighborhood is the most common zoning type and covers most of that 89%. Commercial use is not allowed in this zone.

Residential Mixed Use zones are ones where housing is required where new commercial use is built and is included in the 89% figure above as we do have some current mixed use areas. Like the Trader Joe’s on Washington Ave where there is a business on the first floor, and homes above.

An example of mixed use zoned land which yielded a grocery store, Trader Joe’s, and housing above at 721 Washington Ave. S. The grocery store is 10,700 square feet.

The third major zone is Commercial Mixed Use (including downtown zones) where commercial use is prioritized. This zone makes up 3-4% of city land. About 4% of parcels are currently vacant. The rest is parks, industrial, and other.

In Minneapolis businesses are primarily located on major streets like Lake Street and Nicollet Avenue and throughout downtown. Businesses tended to grow there because of the streetcars of the 1900s-1950s bringing foot traffic through transit hubs. These business nodes have since been solidified in the zoning code and now comprise about 3-4% of the city’s land parcels.

The 2040 plan includes several places where the zoning now allows six story buildings next to bus stops, but doesn't allow that same building to have, say, a bagel or coffee shop on the ground floor. This is the case near where I live.

Urban Neighborhoods are currently prohibited from having commercial uses. We are adding new homes but nowhere for residents to walk to get breakfast. People have to travel farther to get what they need. More homes next to bus lines and bike lanes means more opportunities for a low carbon future, especially if we can build more places like the Trader Joe’s on Washington Ave. with mixed use and easy access to food.

Different types of land use categorized. Available on page 1 of the City of Minneapolis’ land use rezoning study.

The land use table, above, details what specific uses are allowed where. It’s about four pages long, but is greatly simplified from the old code . There are three possible states for each use. "Conditional" is labeled “C” and would mean that it has a public hearing where neighbors can weigh in on the use. "Permitted" or “P” means the use can be built “by right” without specific approval by the Planning Commission. If the space is blank, commercial use would be prohibited in that zone.

If you’re doing the math, that leaves less than 10% of the city open for commercial use. And very little is expected to change. The city has stated that they are increasing the commercial area by 50%, which would be changing the percentage from 3-4% to 5-6% at most.

Most of this expansion is the new Goods and Services corridors which is where the Residential Mixed Use is located. However, these corridors are more heavily restricted than Commercial Mixed use and require homes on the same lot as the new shops. Residential Mixed use also has size limits on commercial uses. The commercial size limits are 5,000 or 10,000 square feet, depending on the zone.

Grocery stores require more space and will be largely impossible to build along Goods and Services corridors. Very small full-service grocery stores, like the Aldi that just closed in North Minneapolis, are typically about 10,000-15,000 square feet. Large grocery stores, like the Cub on Nicollet Ave. and 54th St., are upwards of 80,000 square feet. Unless the drafted rules change somehow these buildings are “too large” for most of the city, as currently zoned.

An example of a building that is too large to be built in most of Minneapolis due to current zoning restrictions. A 40,000 square foot grocery store is at the ground level of housing at 4600 Snelling Ave. in Minneapolis.

As for new apartment developments, any new apartments larger than three units are in UN3, or Urban Neighborhood 3. Of the 89% residential zoned land, 83% of the city that was single family pre-2040 plan is now UN1 and UN2. In that 83%, triplexes are now legal, but are unlikely to be built. Why?

There are many mechanisms the city uses to restrict building size including building height, square foot per lot, and distance to the lot edge, called setbacks. One of these is Floor Area Ratio, shortened to FAR in the code. It’s a number you multiply by the lot area to find the total buildable square footage for that lot.

The Floor Area Ratio for triplexes is the same as it is for single families on the same lot in an Urban Neighborhood zone. The FAR is 0.5, and on most lots that means a building that is 2500 square feet. Many existing triplexes and four home condos, built in the early 1900s, have FAR of 0.7 or greater or 3500 square feet.  That extra space is needed to make the homes livable for families, and without that extra space new triplexes are unlikely to be built.

It is very difficult to know what the actual size of a new building can be as the rules vary drastically by zone. And whether a development can include a bakery or barbershop is also determined by the zoning code, which is detailed in the new color-coded land use table. These rules focus on what “land use” really means, what is legal to development and where the development can be. This is the first time those rules will change in Minneapolis since 1999. To learn more about the rezoning plans, visit the city's land use rezoning website.