More stringent review for student housing?

Small developments raise big issues with city approvals proces

Update: At the City Council’s Aug. 22 meeting, Ward 2 Council Member Cam Gordon introduced the subject matter of a moratorium on the demolition, new construction, or establishment of single and two-family residential dwellings and multiple-family residential dwellings having three- or four-dwelling units in the residential zoning districts in the “University District” area, including the neighborhoods of Cedar Riverside, Marcy Holmes, Prospect Park, Southeast Como, and University. The council voted to send the issue to the Zoning And Planning Committee. Watch for more coverage of this as the issue progresses.

Three months ago, the corner lot at 1217 Yale Ave. in Prospect Park held a two-story home. By late August, a four-unit, 20-bedroom building is nearing completion in its place.

The project is just one of many going up in neighborhoods surrounding the University of Minnesota, drawing a range of opinions from residents — particularly homeowners. Larger developments, like the 13-story Dinkydome project, are making their way through the city’s public approvals process, which usually includes at least some input from residents via the respective neighborhood organization.

Other small projects, like 1217 Yale, don’t warrant that level of review but have raised the hackles of nearby residents, some of whom take issue with the city’s zoning and permits policies. They claim the lack of oversight lets projects be built under the radar without any notification to — much less review by — the surrounding neighbors.
Meanwhile, developers say they’re just playing by the current rules and following a market trend toward student housing. Rental property owners — like Tim Harmsen, who along with his wife Karen owns close to 70 rental properties in the University area — say they are often improving the neighborhoods by replacing dilapidated, unsafe homes and filling a very real demand for quality student housing.

The lack of review for small projects has prompted some residents to call for a review of the city approval process itself. City planning staff admit it might be a good conversation to have, but nothing specific is planned as of yet.

‘Under the wire’

One of the problems most often cited by neighborhood residents is that developers are able to slide projects “under the wire” via the city’s site plan review standards, which, when adopted in April 2005, were designed to make the process of approving smaller projects more objective and efficient from a city planning perspective.

According to Haila Maze, principal planner for the Northeast/ Southeast sector of Minneapolis, any residential property with four units or fewer that does not require a rezoning or variance request is subject to only administrative review by city staff. The site plan review standards developed several years ago added a points system to the process. As Maze explained, the points system ensures projects are in compliance with the zoning code, while also offering incentives for certain building features such as additional landscaping, garages tucked behind a development or incorporation of lots of windows. A total of 24 points are possible, and a minimum of 15 points must be achieved for a zoning approval to be granted, according to city documents.

From neighborhoods’ perspectives, the process leaves them powerless to appeal such decisions, and often the neighborhood organization doesn’t find out about smaller projects that have received administrative review until weeks after the fact — often when it’s too late to provide input to the developer.

Florence Littman and Jo Radzwill, the respective chairs of the Prospect Park/East River Road Improvement Association (PPERRIA) and Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association (MHNA) land use committees, say the most urgent concerns surround issues like the number of off-street parking spaces required per unit by the city, the number of housing units with four or more bedrooms, the location of high-density developments in the neighborhoods and the over-saturation of housing aimed at a specific demographic.

More stringent review of student housing?

For instance, a building with four five-bedroom units might house 20 students but only require four off-street parking spots.

Does administrative review need a review?

Maze admitted that the regulatory process sometimes has “unintended consequences,” but she said her understanding from talking with city staff is that there has been a general improvement in the quality of projects approved since the new site plan review standards were adopted. But neighbors like Radzwill and Littman disagree, claiming the points system has actually made it easier for developers to get their projects approved.

Maze said almost every city has some sort of administrative review procedure, without which there would be so many public meetings the city planning process would be unable to function effectively. “That’s quite a price to pay for efficiency,” Littman said, acknowledging that city planners are already overworked but suggesting they could rely more heavily on an important resource at their disposal — the local neighborhood groups.

The city isn’t oblivious to neighbors’ development concerns in the University District. In fact, Maze said the City’s Department of Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED) plans to look into such topics as occupancy, design, parking and enforcement issues, in the University District especially. The process will include looking at “what we can do to improve our system and make it work better,” she said. While Maze said she didn’t know what form the outreach would take at this time — whether it would include a survey of core constituencies (including neighborhood organizations, students, businesses and residents), a series of individual meetings in the neighborhoods, or further study of the specific communities — she did say neighborhood organizations would be a key group to start with, although this isn’t the first time the University neighborhoods or CPED have addressed housing issues together.

CPED is also interested in what other communities dealing with University housing issues across the country are doing to address the same concerns. “We didn’t invent these issues,” Maze said, adding that there is a lot to be learned from other cities in the same situation. Having a large university nearby is a “wonderful resource,” she said, “but there are some very predictable challenges associated with it.” [The issue of student housing is further complicated by the fact that the city has no way to differentiate between student housing developments and other high-rise or high-density units in its record system, she added.]

The result of addressing topics could possibly result in zoning changes in specific areas and amendments to the zoning code or administrative review process, she said, although the City has to be thoughtful about the consequences of such changes, which affect not just the University District, but the entire city of Minneapolis. Maze also mentioned the possibility of creating an overlay code to apply to the University District specifically — a city planning tool sometimes used to construct special zoning for parts of a city that possess unique qualities not shared by other areas.

Radzwill said she is aware of the city’s plans and welcomes the idea of looking at the university’s needs specifically. “We’ve been pushing on that [point] for a long time — for years,” Radzwill said about the possibility of overlay zoning for the University District.

Littman also supports the idea of an overlay district, although she remains unconvinced that renewed conversation between the neighborhoods and the city is the best way to improve the situation. “We don’t need a whole big study,” Littman said. “We’ll talk, and talk, and talk, and get nothing done. We need action … We’ve already lost a couple of houses.”

To see our rundown of current student housing developments in the University District here.

last revised: August 29, 2008