Friday, March 2, 2012

What NIMBYism Looks Like: It's Not the Parking This Time

For many urban development projects NIMBYism is a problem, though I am not convinced that NIMBYism prevents regional development as much as for local development (meaning that if a specific project is blocked in a particular location that development will likely occur elsewhere in the region, thus the region is just as well off as had the development occurred in the original location). That said, the other day I highlighted the problem of parking requirements as a tool for NIMBYism, and here is another example from the Twin Cities where a project in south Minneapolis has been blocked by community opposition. Here is a link to the project website, and here is a link to the opposition website. This is a story from the StarTribune about the fate of the project. From the post:
A controversial mixed-use development project in the Linden Hills neighborhood likely won't move forward after an extended and emotional hearing at City Hall Thursday.
The city's Zoning and Planning committee granted an appeal filed by neighbors who are concerned with the project's impact on the area. In particular, neighbors took issue with the development's five-story height -- two stories more than normally allowed in the area.
Residents were appealing a City Planning Commission decision last month to allow the project to move foward. The full City Council still needs to approve the appeal.
Details about the project can be found on The building would include 40 condominiums and eight business on the first floor. For a taste of the opposition, take a look
Spectators packed into the Council chambers Thursday, many donning buttons with a cross through a photo of the development.
"There has now been a rent in the fabric of Linden Hills," said council member Betsy Hodges, who represents the area. "It will take a long time to heal that."
When people talk about NIMBYism, this is a classic example of what they mean. A five story building is too much for the neighbors, and the zoning code says three is the maximum allowed. Some will decry that this project won't move forward, but these units will likely be built elsewhere in the city so the net effect will be about the same. However, a larger point I want to highlight is that many of the NIMBY problems that planning faces today are due in part to the false precision that is prevalent in the zoning codes. Parking requirements are extremely precise, though meaningless, and prevent all kinds of development. Yet planners have insisted that parking requirements are scientific and accurate for decades! Of course the neighbors will argue that parking requirements are important because the city has been telling them so for years. So it goes with height restrictions. Why limit to three stories in this part of south Minneapolis? I bet no one really knows. Yet it is in the code, so it must be right. Except it's not.

This project will not move forward, but it doesn't seem to be because the parking requirements are a constraint if they built a smaller building.  As designed, there were 135 parking spaces included (1.5 spaces per residential unit and 75 for commercial use). This is in excess of the minimum parking spaces required under Minneapolis' recently revised zoning code:
Will there be enough Parking?  Yes.  There will be 135 total parking stalls on site -- 123 parking stalls below grade  and 12 stalls on grade.  This exceeds City requirements of 81 stalls.  Of the excess (81) stalls, 20 will be allocated for extra condo parking, and 25 will support parking needed for neighboring businesses.  Therefore, Of the total (135) stalls, 60 will be dedicated to private condo parking and most of the remaining 72 stalls will be free of charge and for public use.    
However, the parking does have to be underground to fit the site and that may be a concern.

Another complicating factor about NIMBYism preventing density is that the area allows far more units than proposed:
 Is Linden Corner within the zoning standard?
Density:  We are proposing 40 units, however the site's zoning provides for up to 74 units without a variance.Volume:  Proposed building volume (gross square footage) is less than 90,000 gsf -- within the zoning standard.  Height:  The site zoning provides 42’ for building height.  The zoning also provides for the possible granting of a “conditional use permit” or C.U.P. for added height.  We are requesting 17' of added height, for a total building height of 59'.  A C.U.P. is an integral part of the zoning code itself.  Contrary to common belief, not all zoning requirements are necessarily fixed.  A C.U.P. is a mechanism of zoning law which provides flexibility in determining reasonable height limitations, etc.
Does the project also meet the standards imposed by the overlay district?     The project meets the requirements of the Linden Hills overlay district with one exception, the overlay limits the setback of the building to not more than 8' from the front property lines.  As part of Linden Corner's architectural interest, and to facilitate an outdoor sidewalk patio for the restaurant, there are segments of the building that set back more than 8' from the front lines.   
So it's not that NIMBYism is preventing density exactly. The developers don't want to build as densely as allowed and are proposing more parking that required. They could redesign the site, but don't want to do that. It's complicated.
 *Special game since it is National Grammar Day. Find where the Oxford Comma should go in the StarTribune text!


Chris Bradford said...

" . . . thus the region is just as well off as had the development occurred in the original location"

That depends, doesn't it? There can be agglomeration benefits to density. Moreover, they can be quite specific to place. Adding the mixed-use retail and cafe/patio and a handful more people to the street might make the area more pleasant for the existing residents; it might stimulate other cafes to open; etc. (I have no idea -- I know nothing about the region or the project, I'm just supposing for supposing's sake. I gather many of the neighbors don't subscribe to the "agglomeration benefits" model of urban development.)

If there are agglomeration benefits, then it's a net loss to the region if the project relocates somewhere where it doesn't have agglomeration benefits.

Unrelated point: it's weird the developer can't get in his units in the allowable space without going above the height limit. It sounds like some of the development regulations might be "out of tune."

Unknown said...

This project is actually proposing to replace some existing restaurants with other restaurants, plus add some commercial. There is already a nicely scaled mixed use district in place, so part of why this is proposed where it is proposed is precisely because of the developer's interest in building more of what is already there. The neighbors do appreciate what is there, they also want to protect against the negative externalities stemming from additional density (traffic, noise, trash, etc.). The neighbors certainly don't want to become any more of a destination neighborhood than they already are.

As for such local level agglomeration benefits, they will occur whether this development happens in this location or another location within the region. The region will be equally well off. If two cafes open next to each other or two cafes open across town from each other, then so long as the demand for cafes is two the region is equally well off. An entertainment district does not necessarily increase the amount of entertainment consumed. Rather, it shifts the entertainment consumed from other locations or spending. The most blatant examples of these effects are sports stadia and arenas, which do not exhibit regional agglomeration benefits, though the effects are found at much smaller scales as well.

As for the developer, it seems that they could build something that conforms with existing zoning that is similar to what is proposed. I'm not sure why the project is likely to be dropped rather than altered.