The University District development moratorium


On Aug. 22, The City Council unanimously approved a moratorium on development in the University District area — the Cedar-Riverside, Marcy-Holmes, Prospect Park, Southeast Como and University neighborhoods. The moratorium would restrict the demolition, new construction or establishment of single- and two-family residential dwellings and multi-family residential dwellings with three or four units in nearly a dozen residential zoning districts in the area.

While an interim moratorium took effect immediately, a public hearing will be held before the City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee, and the conditions upon which wavers will be granted is yet to be determined. The full council will then vote again to approve the final moratorium, which could last a year.

In September, The Bridge’s Liz Riggs sat down with Ward 2 Councilmember Cam Gordon to talk about why he introduced the moratorium and what the city hopes to accomplish during its duration.
Why do you feel a development moratorium in the University District is appropriate at this time?

I think a lot of things have come together to make this the right thing to do. For a long time, people have been noticing and discussing particular stresses and strains in the university area, [an area] that has a particular demand, especially on housing. There’s been a sense in some of the neighborhoods … that some of this pressure has led particularly to the loss of or a change in the character of the smaller residential dwellings — single family homes, duplexes and triplexes. It’s an issue that people have been working on for awhile.

We’ve been able to frame that in a new way because of the creation of the University District Partnership Alliance (UPDA), which was created [and funded] through the State Legislature … basically as the result of the [University of Minnesota football] stadium that was going in. We came back as a city, and as the neighborhoods in the area and said, “We’re concerned also about the general impact of the university, not just the stadium, on the area.”

I see the moratorium as something the city’s doing to help further or create some space so that alliance can do some of the work involved, especially looking at the issues that the city might have more to do with in terms of zoning in the area, in terms of development criteria and standards, in terms of other regulations like parking … [and] things like inspections.

Can we talk about what you’re hoping the city and the University District Partnership Alliance will accomplish?

I hope that they’ll have an opportunity to clarify a number of things, and part of it is even working on the scope of what they think they can address … One of the things I hope that they’ll look at is zoning in the area, whether it’s appropriate. I think there are some examples where some single-family homes have been zoned R-4 or R-5 since the 1980s, which means they could have a bigger apartment building on their lot, and they’ve remained a single-family home and they’re on the edge of the neighborhood in a community where there’s mostly residential, smaller, single-family homes. So there’s an idea maybe there should be some zoning changes there. Conversely, maybe there are some areas where we want to make sure that we say, “Well, here’s where more density can make sense, and we want to make sure that we have the right zoning there.”

The second step beyond zoning is the review process for new homes. We’ve had some concerns about the administrative review process — a point process that I think is very helpful because it indicates in these certain categories: you do these things and then your project will be approved. … But we’ve gotten some comments from neighborhood residents that they want … more opportunity [for] review or a little bit higher standards. I’m hoping there will be a chance to review those standards so that we can ensure that the kind of residential development that we’re getting is compatible with the other homes in the area and is at a high enough quality to meet community standards.

A third thing I’m hoping to look at is, should there be some kind of an overlay district created, and should there be some kind of special rules just for the area. … One thing we’re looking at is parking standards.

For example, how many off-street parking spaces are required per unit. Right now, citywide, it’s a fairly low number — one off-street parking [space] needs to be provided for each dwelling unit. Well, in the university area you can get four or five bedroom units, and there can be more cars than you might expect from a family because there’s a number of adults who are sharing it. And so there’s a suggestion that, for those larger bedroom units, maybe there should be more off-street parking required, and that would take some of the pressure off the community. There’s also concern about what kind of off-street parking it is … We do have requirements about how much of a yard has to be permeable surface and can’t be paved over and all those kinds of things. There will be a way to safeguard against that, as well.

Then there are other issues involving occupancy codes. What should the maximum occupancy be? And what makes sense? But even more than that, how do we enforce that, and how do we make that part of something we can regulate more easily? Because right now, it’s very difficult to regulate.

Sounds like a lot. Do you think, if the moratorium remains in effect for a year, that that’s going to be enough time to address and accomplish those goals?

I do feel there is the capacity to get the work done. We have city staff who are dedicated to this. We also have some energy and interest because of the [UDPA.] There’s a report due back to [the Legislature] in January, so there’s some motivation to … get this underway now.

I think that part of what is always hard to gauge is, once the ideas are kind of fleshed out by the smaller group, and we bring them forward to the community, how long a process do we need to have so that people can learn what they are and give some feedback, and make those modifications?

So, I think a year actually gives us plenty of time to do that, and we can review it. There’s the possibility that we could get our work done sooner and get everything figured out and we can end the moratorium sooner. I suspect, even if we try to say we’re going to have it all done in June, it may take a little longer. My brief experience here with city government is things often take longer than you might want or expect.

Do you feel the city, and more specifically, the planning department, is prepared to deal with would could be a significant increase in workload, with having to handle all the exemption requests? Is that something you’ve thought about?

That is a legitimate concern that has come up when I was asking about doing the moratorium. People talked about how sometimes, if there’s a lot of waivers, then this creates some [extra] work. I’m not sure there’s going to be that many requests for waivers.
I think, hopefully, people will understand that we need to do this. I think the waivers that will be needed might be for demolition projects because [of] unsafe conditions, and I think those should be pretty clear. … If all of a sudden it seems like everybody wants to build a new home, or everybody wants to tear down their old home, then we could be in trouble. … That is hard to predict, and it is a concern.

What about people who are considering a project or have already submitted an application for a project?

People can be at a lot of different stages in the process of getting some work done, and I think some of those decisions will have to be made by the City Attorneys’ Office. If an application’s been submitted, that means nothing’s been approved yet. I think that person would then fall under this moratorium.

On the other side of it, if [an application’s] been submitted and approved and there’s already a demolition permit or there’s already a building permit for the new house, [the moratorium] wouldn’t affect them because they’ve already been granted approval on all of those things. But there might be some gray areas. I’m not the expert on exactly where the line’s drawn.

I want people to know: projects that have already been approved, those will go forward… But I think it will affect the other ones. Now, people can indicate their desire to apply for a waiver. What will happen is when people want a waiver, the staff will review that, they’ll come up with the conditions and the recommendations, and then they’ll bring that to the Zoning and Planning Committee.

It’s a little bit hard right now, because we don’t have the specifics of the interim ordinance. Hopefully, by Oct. 2, all that will be figured out, and that won’t be too big of a delay for people.

I do know there are already people who are making other plans or adjusting. My hope is that, in the end, the developers or people who have projects they want to do, and pending projects, will also have an opportunity to be part of this process. In the end, it’s going to be easier and clearer for everybody involved about what can happen and what the processes are, what can’t happen, what we want to get out of it. I hope this will actually end up with something positive for people who want to do development … although, at first blush, I’m sure people see it as, “This is anti-development.”

Speaking of developers, have you heard any feedback yet?

I’ve had a couple calls, and some of them are questions: ‘Why are you doing this?’ or ‘Will this affect my project?’ … I did have a couple conversations with one person and they were trying to decide whether to go ahead with demolishing one of their properties or not, and then I think they decided they’re just going to go ahead and rent it again for another school year. So in a way, maybe the timing was nice that we did this in August … I’m hoping then they had an opportunity to rent it out again.

In conclusion, Gordon encourages people to share their thoughts, get involved and learn about the development moratorium. “We are working through all of the neighborhood organizations, and they all have representatives who will be participating in this, so communicating with them is a great idea,” he said, encouraging, as well, communication with the planning department, and to contact his office, at 612-673-2202, with questions or issues, or to become involved in the process.