Writer: Joshua Andino
2 min read June 2022 — Earlier this month, the Minneapolis 2040 plan was suspended after it was successfully challenged in court. That doesn’t mean, however, the plan is dead.
“The general consensus from the people I talked to is, this is something the city will prevail on,” said Bruce Brenner, a triplex developer, speaking to the Star Tribune. “Otherwise, literally any comprehensive plan is up for cancellation, so I don’t think that’s the direction they’ll take.”
Currently, rezoning projects and new developments will have to be paused or reassessed as a result of the court order, further complicating developer timelines during an already complicated period, a result of covid-ruptured supply chains and more recently, a war in Europe.
While the city has been forced to revert back toward its older Minneapolis 2030 plan, per the Minnpost, the thousands of hours of community feedback and lengthy town halls have not (yet) been in vain. Judge Joseph Klein wrote in the 28-page order that suspended the plan that while there would undoubtedly be short-term chaos, the city may proceed with the plan so long as it “satisfies” the requirements under Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA) or establishes an affirmative defense. That gives the city two options: conduct an environmental review of the plan or introduce new evidence that would negate the claims made by environmentalists, which the city failed to do throughout the case.
Klein wrote, “Of note, however, is that other than vague references to ‘environmental analysis and considerations,’ the City did not specifically identify any formal environmental review or analysis that was performed as part of the approval process, or that has taken place since approval of the 2040 Plan.”
In response to the order, Deputy City Attorney for Minneapolis Erik Nilsson said in a statement the order is being reviewed and “while we anticipate filing an appeal,” the city will “consider all options.” Later on June 17, spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie for the Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office said the attorney’s office was beginning an appeal and hopes a court will block the order from taking effect while that process unfolds. City staff will work to minimize potential disruption, reported The Star Tribune.
In challenging the plan, environmentalists argued that it would fundamentally transform the city, essentially upzoning the entire area. Indeed, the plan abolishes single-family zoning, allowing the construction of duplexes and triplexes, the famous “missing middle” housing on single-family lots. Beyond ending single-family zoning, the plan also allowed for accessory dwelling units. Other tiny homes, or “intentional community clusters” of tiny home villages and shared common areas would be developed to tackle homelessness. Development and affordable housing would be pursued along transit corridors, reverse racial disparities in housing, and increase the overall housing stock in a time when there remains a nationwide housing shortage.
In a conversation with KARE 11, David Hartwell, a former board member of one of the plaintiffs in the case, the Minneapolis Audubon Chapter, said his concerns revolved around the impact of densification and livability, even as studies show densification can have positive environmental impacts. “You can now build a triplex on any lot in the city. You can build a 10-story apartment building on any transportation corridor — no special use permits — it adds huge density to the city.” He clarified, “We’re not anti-development, but you know we want the city to be livable for everyone.”
While the Minneapolis 2040 plan would have arguably transformed the city, the environmental impacts may be overstated. Research suggests that despite appearances, densification and urban living creates positive environmental impacts by reducing commute times or removing cars from the street altogether through the use of mass transit and more energy efficient buildings, and prevent sprawling suburbs that require huge infrastructural investments to support and levy additional transportation costs on potential residents in the form of car and insurance payments.
Peter Wagenius, legislative and political director for environmental group Sierra Club North Star, told The Star Tribune in his own statement that any solution to climate change would require having more people live in cities than not. “There’s a long list of factors. It includes driving distances, access to transit, walkability, and the heating and cooling efficiencies of multifamily housing,” he said. “[The lawsuit’s] analysis fails to understand that people are going to live somewhere. … If we force development to the suburban fringe, we are forcing more people to drive more often and for much longer distances.”
The Minneapolis 2040 plan was made effective at the onset of 2020, and while a global pandemic and ruptured supply chains may have presented certain challenges for developers, new construction proceeded and new housing came online, making Minneapolis one of, and perhaps the only city to see a decrease in rental rates over the last few years, even as the rest of the country struggles with skyrocketing prices and the national average continues to climb, with a Rentcafe comparison showing the Minneapolis’ trend-line remain virtually flat over the course of the last few years.