Teardown boom in southwest Minneapolis leads to complaints, moratorium

Teardown moratorium
Two new homes sandwich an older home on the 5300 block of Zenith Avenue S., Monday, Mar. 17, 2014 in Minneapolis.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

Fireworks are expected in Minneapolis later this week, when the public has its first official chance to weigh in on the moratorium the City Council has imposed on building new houses in the southwest corner of the city.

Related: U.S. home construction falls for a 3rd month

The upscale neighborhoods of Linden Hills and Lynnhurst and the up-and-coming areas of Fulton, Armatage and Kenny have been at the epicenter of an unprecedented building boom. That has led to a barrage of complaints from neighbors concerned about oversized homes, construction noise and debris.

The growing dispute pits longtime residents who want to retain the charm of quiet, wooded streets and modest homes against newcomers who want to raze outdated houses and replace them with larger, modern homes.

Home builders say the moratorium, which the council passed quietly earlier this month, is an overreaction to concerns about overbuilding. They want the council to repeal the measure.

Map: Teardowns in Minneapolis in 2013

Small red dots indicate teardowns in Ward 13. Yellow dots show teardowns elsewhere in the city. Data courtesy the city of Minneapolis

Teardown moratorium
Minneapolis resident Keli Ferrier, photographed Monday, Mar. 17, 2014 outside her Fulton neighborhood home, says she is opposed to all the teardowns and large, new home construction she sees around her.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

To longtime residents, however, the council's vote was overdue.

Fulton resident Keli Ferrier said the big new houses cast shadows on their neighbors and detract from the quaint character of the area. In short, she said, teardowns are tearing her neighborhood apart.

"The people that live in the houses that are next to mine might be wonderful people, and I'm sure I'll meet them, and we might get along just perfectly well," she said. "But I have to say, I don't think I want to meet them. That's ridiculous to say something like that. And I hate that I feel like that, and it's all because of that house."

When Ferrier first moved to the neighborhood four years ago, it was a quiet place. The only noise she heard was that of boys chasing girls around the block.

Teardown graphic
Ward 13 includes the five Minneapolis neighborhoods subject to the building moratorium.
Courtesy of the City of Minneapolis

But last summer, the air was filled with the sound of demolition, as workers demolished small houses to make room for bigger ones.

On a drive through her neighborhood, Ferrier pointed to two or three new houses on nearly every block. Many tower over the modest bungalows next door.

"Look at how much bigger that house is than that one," she said.

The number of teardowns in Fulton ballooned from three in 2011 to 26 last year. A similar transformation occurred in the four other neighborhoods subject to the moratorium.

City zoning officials say the construction amounts to the largest building boom of single-family houses in recent history.

Linden Hills home, left, plan for new home, right
Kristen Miller and her husband purchased the 1100 square foot home in Linden Hills, left. They were weeks away from getting a permit to tear it down when the moratorium took effect. Now their plan to build the house on the right is in limbo.
Courtesy Kristen Miller

City Councilwoman Linea Palmisano, who represents southwest Minneapolis, said half of her staff time is devoted to dealing with complaints about construction. They include dangerous building sites, drainage problems and projects that stretch the city's zoning rules to the breaking point.

"I'm trying to stop bad behavior," Palmisano said. "That behavior is not a few bad actors. That behavior is a lot of bad actors that are currently exploiting the rules that we have, and acting in ways that we can't catch."

Palmisano unveiled the moratorium earlier this month, without notice, because she didn't want to create a stampede at the permitting office. The entire City Council voted to adopt it on an interim basis, which meant it went into effect immediately.

That caught some new property owners by surprise. Kristen Miller and her husband have been thinking about building a house in Minneapolis for the last three years. They hired an architect and a builder and last month bought a one-story foreclosure in the Linden Hills neighborhood. Miller said her family was a week away from applying for a demolition and building permit when the moratorium vote took place.

"I was just shocked, and I thought my whole life just changed because of this meeting," she said.

Under the moratorium, people in Miller's situation can apply for a hardship waiver from the City Council. But even if the Millers obtain one, their project could be delayed. That means her family might have to find some place to rent for several months so her teenage daughters can start school in Minneapolis this fall.

"And it's not just the monetary stress that's put on us," Miller said. "It's the emotional impact that it has on me. Moving is one of the most stressful things you can do in your life, and this exponentially adds stress to that."

This isn't the first time Minneapolis has dealt with the teardown issue.

In 2007, the city passed an ordinance aimed at limiting the size of new homes. Mayor Betsy Hodges, who represented southwest Minneapolis at the time, said she agrees the city needs to revisit the issue, but not necessarily through a moratorium.

"We need to make sure we're enforcing city regulation, setting clear expectations for developers and builders, improving communication among stakeholders," Hodges said. "I really do think we can resolve a lot of those issues, without having to do a long-term moratorium, and I'm committed to working with Council Member Palmisano on that."

An online petition against the moratorium has gathered more than 1,000 signatures. The construction industry and the Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors are also pressing the council to lift the moratorium.

Palmisano said she would consider finding a way to address the problems without putting construction on hold, but she hasn't committed to doing it, yet.

Editor's note: The online petition against the moratorium was started by a homeowner, not the construction industry, as an earlier version of this story implied.

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