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More homes, more bikes, fewer cars: City Council president looks to rebuild Minneapolis

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Lisa Bender stands for a portrait in front of an apartment building.
Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender stands for a portrait in front of an apartment building in her district in Minneapolis' Uptown neighborhood.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender got her start in politics in 2009, lobbying the city for more bike lanes. Now, she's leading the city's effort to make over the zoning laws that dictate what does and doesn't get built. 

Her vision: Denser, more walkable neighborhoods with fewer single-family homes and fewer cars. She wants to see businesses mixed in with homes, more apartments — and smaller apartments — along major transit corridors, and more affordable housing everywhere in the city. 

Minneapolis is currently finalizing its comprehensive plan, a hulking document the city creates once a decade that spells out how it wants to develop over the next 20 years. Once the city passes this plan, it will turn its attention to overhauling its zoning code next year. That will likely be the biggest change in land use policy since the city created its very first zoning map in 1960, which set aside large swaths of the city exclusively for single-family homes. That's been a boon for bungalows, but Bender and housing advocates say it's no longer sustainable. 

"If we don't build the housing we need to accommodate our population growth, we're just going to see rising rents," Bender said. 

Making inroads

A combination office and apartment building sits on Hennepin Avenue.
A combination office and apartment building sits on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis in March.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Bender moved home to the Twin Cities in 2009, after working in New York City on transit issues, getting her master's degree in urban planning and working in San Francisco as an urban planner. 

Everywhere she went in the Twin Cities when she returned, she saw a problem with the way the streets were designed. 

"It was all about moving cars through neighborhoods quickly, and the result of that was [that] cars move through neighborhoods quickly — and make it unsafe for people," she said.  

So she founded an advocacy group called the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition — now called Our Streets Minneapolis — to pressure the city council to design streets with bicyclists and pedestrians in mind. In its first few years, the organization successfully lobbied for bike lanes along major roads like Park, Portland and Central avenues, and more than 150 new bike racks across the city. The group also persuaded the city to create a new, full-time job for someone to work on biking and pedestrian infrastructure. 

That experience set her up to run for City Council in 2013, a race she won against an incumbent with more than 60 percent of the vote. She now represents Ward 10, which includes the Uptown and Whittier neighborhoods. 

As a council member, she championed a "complete streets" policy, which turned the city's approach to roads on its head. Before the policy, city streets were designed for cars; now, they're designed first for pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users, and then for cars.

"An engineer used to look at a street and say, 'OK, we need four lanes of traffic and these lanes have to move ... cars at all times of day, and therefore we can't have these pedestrian or bike lanes because they won't fit," Bender said. "Now we say, this is on our bike plan, it's on a transit corridor, we need to have 15 feet of sidewalk space, we need to have a bike lane, and then we see what space is left for cars."

Bike lanes have not been universally celebrated in Minneapolis. When Bender ran for re-election in 2017, someone distributed fliers throughout her ward, warning that her bike lanes would kill the area on Nicollet Avenue known as Eat Street, because there wouldn't be anywhere to park. But she won re-election last fall with even more votes than before.

Parking cramp

Lisa Bender stands outside of the new uptown Minneapolis Target
Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender stands outside of the new uptown Minneapolis Target in March.
Evan Frost | MPR News

During Bender's first term, housing, and especially affordable housing, became increasingly hard to come by. Bender and her pro-density allies looked to cars as part of the problem. Specifically: They looked to a city policy that mandated new parking spaces with new development.  

For years, the city of Minneapolis had strict parking requirements for new developments. Every new housing unit built outside of downtown had to come with at least one off-street parking space. That led apartment developers to either set aside valuable land for surface parking lots or to build underground parking ramps, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars per spot.

Bender and her pro-density allies said that, in addition to driving up building costs, parking requirements can restrict what types of apartments developers could build. 

"An underground ramp ... really drives the architecture of a building because you end up with the footprint of the building reflecting the ramp," Bender said. And that footprint, she said, is typically big and square, and often without room for shops and restaurants on the first floor like older buildings have.  

Bender led the effort to ease parking requirements. New buildings in the city with fewer than 50 units that are located near public transit now aren't required to provide any off-street parking. For larger buildings, they cut the old one-parking-spot-per-unit requirement in half.

Parking is among the most contentious issues that come before city government, and Bender has not be spared the wrath of residents in her Uptown ward who say it's become nearly impossible to find parking near home. 

"It's true," she said. "Conversations about parking become very emotional, very quickly." 

The most recent flashpoint in her ward has been a new development planned on the spot where the Sons of Norway building currently stands. Right now, it's a large office building with an adjacent parking lot. But the city recently gave developers the green light to build two buildings on the site, creating 319 apartments and more than 20,000 square feet of office and retail space. And although the plan also includes 323 parking spaces, neighborhood residents who oppose the project say that just isn't enough.

Carol Dines, who's lived in the area for 32 years, has been a staunch opponent of Bender's proposals in recent years. She's a regular at City Council meetings now and writes letters to the editor of the Star Tribune newspaper.  She said Bender's support of new development is out of control.

"I feel like Uptown is becoming a Millennial playground," Dines said. "And it's pushing out a lot of people."

Dines hasn't always been a Bender critic. She said she largely agrees with Bender's vision — in theory. Dines said she likes bikes lanes and sidewalks, she cares about gentrification and wants to see more affordable housing. She said she even voted for Bender back in 2013. But she's noticing more traffic and less parking in her neighborhood, which she anticipates will continue. 

"She does not acknowledge cars are a part of reality," Dines said. 

Back to the future

Bender is quick to point out that her vision of dense, walkable neighborhoods throughout the city is not a new one. If anything, she said, her policy goals are a return to the way things were. 

"Over time, in our city and so many others, we've focused on segregating out uses that we've made a lot of these things that happened very naturally over many decades illegal in our city," Bender said. 

Change, she added, is a natural part of life in her ward: "Uptown is kind of an ever changing part of Minneapolis and we all have a reference point for the real uptown of what we remember." 

And if change is part of the character of Uptown, so is resistance to change. In 1989, the City Council passed a moratorium banning any new development in Uptown for a year. The mayor ultimately blocked the ban, but former Council Member Barbara Carlson was confident it would kill the neighborhood. 

"If you keep putting something on top of something on top of something on top of something on top of something, you're going to kill it. You smother it. It dies," Carlson said in 1989. 

Thirty years later, residents are still concerned about traffic and pollution and, of course, that perennial question of parking. 

Bender takes the criticism in stride. Her opinion is that the city needs to allow for more types of housing — including micro-apartments — in order to ease the housing shortage. She's also helped legalize what city planners call "accessory dwelling units" — also called "granny flats" — which allow people to build apartments in their basements, attics or garages. 

"We need the right kind of housing that fit our current and projected population," Bender said. "About 40 percent of people in Minneapolis live alone in a one-person household, and so we need a mix of smaller units for people who are at a stage of life where they're living alone." 

It used to be that a duplex needed to be on a plot of land twice as big as one for a single family home. Bender helped remove that restriction in her first term, too. 

The draft comprehensive plan goes even further. It would allow up to four units on any plot of land nearly anywhere in the city. Some Minneapolis residents have taken to calling them "Freyplexes" because the idea has found a loyal booster in Mayor Jacob Frey. 

The draft of the comprehensive plan also proposes that the city allow buildings along major transit corridors to be taller than they are now, while also allowing businesses and retail to be built in more areas of the city. 

Her latest policy victory is a program that gives landlords a 40 percent discount on their property taxes for units they keep affordable for people who make 60 percent or less of the area's median income. The City Council approved that program last week in hopes that it will dissuade landlords from raising rents.

The end zone

Bender says her next challenge is to pass a policy that would require developers to build affordable housing. 

Inclusionary zoning, as such a policy is called, could take on several possible forms: It could be a requirement that developers  set aside a minimum number of units for low-income renters in new developments. Or it could come in the form of a tax on developers, with the funds going toward building affordable housing elsewhere. It's unclear what an inclusionary zoning policy might look like in Minneapolis, but Bender seems confident that something is on the horizon. 

"I don't think we had the support in the last term to pass that kind of ordinance ... I think we do now," she said. 

Bender still embraces the push for transportation options beyond cars that launched her career. And while more people choose to bike or take public transit, it's still tough for a lot of people to get around the city without a car. 

For Lisa Bender, the future might not be coming quickly enough: She recently — reluctantly — bought her own car. 

"Now that I'm council president," she said, "I need to be in a lot of different parts of the city very quickly, and it wasn't working so well to try to bike or take Lyft or whatever." 

And even though it's getting harder to find a parking spot, she still loves those bike lanes.