In the wake of the recently approved Minneapolis 2040 plan, the director of the Minnesota Design Center makes the case for replacing traditional zoning with performance-based zoning that challenges building owners and developers to align their projects with the city’s goals of equity, affordability, and opportunity

By Thomas Fisher, Assoc. AIA

The City of Minneapolis has drawn national attention—and a lot of local controversy—for the provision in its comprehensive plan, Minneapolis 2040, that allows triplexes in its formerly single-family residential districts. That one policy has eclipsed other aspects of the plan that will likely have an even more transformative effect on the character of the city, and that also show why we need new ways of thinking about zoning.

Minneapolis 2040 begins with a set of ambitious and admirable goals that the city hopes to achieve over the next two decades: Eliminate disparities, attract more residents and living-wage jobs, create more affordable and accessible housing, and foster a healthier, safer, and more connected physical environment that builds on the history, culture, and creative and natural amenities of the city. The plan also aspires to have complete neighborhoods, climate-change resilience, a clean environment, a sustainable and diverse economy, and a proactive and accessible government that welcomes equitable civic participation.

The challenge will come in how the city reaches those goals. The plan lays out 100 policies, with action steps for each, and it has an extensive implementation section that lists short-, medium-, and long-term strategies to achieve the goals, with the city departments and key partners assigned to lead each effort. Minneapolis 2040 is a thorough and impressive body of work, the result of extensive consultation with the residents and leadership of every neighborhood in the city, as the sections on the planning process and on the small-area plans demonstrate.

But like all such plans, Minneapolis 2040 represents an incrementalism that, while politically prudent, does not go far enough in some areas, such as the sections on Land Use & Built Form and on Transportation. For example, policy 25 recognizes that shared, autonomous electric vehicles will soon be coming to city streets, and it urges proactive planning and regulation to prepare for that transformation in our transportation system—a change that has already begun and that will certainly be prevalent by 2040. But the section of the document on built form still shows a public realm planned around the transportation system of the past, with wide streets, curbside parking, and continuously paved road surfaces, even as the auto industry moves rapidly to a technology that will allow narrower lanes and pervious paving, with a shared-mobility-service model that will largely eliminate curbside parking.

No one knows how quickly this change will occur, and the city showed restraint—and probably avoided even more controversy—by not showing any major changes to its streets. But it seems likely that, by 2040, the plan’s drawings of the city’s public realm will seem outdated. It’s perhaps a missed opportunity to start a conversation around transportation services that, as we have seen with dockless bikes and scooters, can arrive suddenly and sooner than most people may think.

The Land Use & Built Form section offers another example of incrementalism that takes some important steps but also falls short in other ways. The plan calls for 12 Future Land Use categories, with a strong focus on a mix of uses in categories including Neighborhood Mixed Use, Corridor Mixed Use, Community Mixed Use, and Destination Mixed Use. This focus, like the triplex allowance, acknowledges the national trend toward denser, more diverse, and more walkable neighborhoods with a wider range of living, working, and shopping options. But the city may have made a misstep in the Destination category by requiring commercial retail uses at street level for all developments. While other parts of the plan rightly emphasize a goal of encouraging small, local businesses, requiring retail in the era of online shopping may prove difficult to achieve in every instance, unless the city broadly interprets retail as publicly accessible space.

These minor quibbles miss a larger point about this plan that needs discussion. For all the wisdom behind its mixed-use and more-flexible land-use categories, Minneapolis 2040 still adheres to a fairly traditional approach to zoning, one that prescribes certain uses in particular locations while proscribing others. Zoning regulations have done that at least since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co. decision in 1926, which upheld the right of municipalities to determine the uses, setbacks, and heights of buildings on private property. That has become such a dominant approach to zoning that its appearance in Minneapolis 2040 raised few eyebrows.

Yet, given the city’s ambitious aims, the question arises: Will traditional zoning help the city reach its goals or hinder it from doing so? The difference between the Goals section and the Land Use & Built Form section that immediately follows it seems especially striking, as if the city hoped to address 21st-century problems with 20th-century procedures. The built forms shown in the plan, for instance, look a lot like the city looks today—and has looked over the last century. That presents a dilemma, not for any aesthetic or architectural reasons, but because the patterns of development that we have had in place in the city have contributed to its disparities and lack of affordable housing. By limiting heights, enforcing setbacks, and determining built form, zoning creates exclusionary patterns—whether intentional or not—that make it hard for neighborhoods with undervalued land to attract investment because they face the same restrictions as areas with higher property values.

The section of the plan on Economic Competitiveness has this telling sentence: “The economy in Minneapolis needs to continue to grow and innovate, and people of color and indigenous people must have physical, personal, and institutional access to this growth.” If so, then why do the land-use and built-form requirements in communities of color look just like those in wealthier neighborhoods? When it comes to restrictive zoning policies, treating diverse neighborhoods equally only ends up reinforcing their inequalities and making it even harder for the people living in underserved areas to have the same economic opportunities. The drawings of the types of buildings allowed in various districts highlight this issue. The streetscapes in those perspective renderings have a conventional blandness that shows little of the imagination and aspiration of the rest of the plan, signaling a disconnect between what the city has been, physically, and what it hopes to become, socially and economically.

What to do about this? While time has run out to do anything about it in the Minneapolis 2040 plan, the city should consider the growing trend among municipalities to move away from prescriptive zoning policies toward performance-based ones, an approach that seems well suited to the city’s goals. Instead of telling property owners and developers what type and size of building they can construct and where they can build it, performance-based zoning would ask them to describe how their project would contribute to the city’s goals of equity, affordability, access, and opportunity. It would place the onus on the owner, the architect, and the developer to make the case, and it would encourage the kind of inventiveness and creativity that the city needs to attract and keep talented people. The city would no doubt become as diverse physically as it has become demographically, with a much wider range of building types and sizes than exists now. It would signal that Minneapolis is an open, innovative place.