Thursday, June 28, 2007

The bloody details of local government: The Minneapolis Planning Commission

One of my duties as a member of the Minneapolis Library Board of Trustees is to serve on the Minneapolis Planning Commission--zoning stuff, city comprehensive plan, approval of variances (e.g. non-conforming uses, etc). It gives me a chance to actually use the city planning parts of my old Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs degree.

The Commission is made up of representatives of the Park, Library, and School Board, a representative of County government, a City Council member, a representative of the Mayor, and four citizens appointed by the Mayor and City Council. Minneapolis has a system that results in a lot of decisions being made by the board and less decisions made administratively by staff.

The meetings start at 4:30 and go until we're done with the business in front of us. Sometimes an hour and a half. Sometimes four hours. The way these meetings go is:

  1. We figure out the projects that have total agreement and pass those with no public meeting and no discussion (consent items).
  2. For each "controversial" project, the staff makes their recommendations and answers questions from the Commission. Then there is the public hearing (where the applicant also responds). Then the Commission further discusses it and votes on an action (which may or may not be the staff recommendation).

This looks like it will be a long meeting--four somewhat controversial projects.

The first project is for a small hotel, condo and commercial rehab of some historic building in the historic Minneapolis Warehouse District. When the project was first proposed it was turned down by the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). The developer re-did the whole plan and got HPC approval. Now it is before the Planning Commission for a number of variances, and a vacation of an alley. The issues are number of curb-cuts (staff wants less, hotel wants more), alley vacation (staff doesn't want to vacate the easement, hotel want it vacated but say they would keep it open space) and grass on the boulevard (staff wants it, some commissioners think it doesn't make sense here). The commission discussion gets bogged down in some detailed site planning (that I think is none of our business). Sometimes we get into the business of picking nits.I guess that is what you get for having a lot of chance for public involvement.

The next project was an apartment complex where the only issue is that the applicant wants to have a larger footprint than zoning allows for the lot. Staff recommends that we don't grant that variance (but recommends approving all their other requests). We grant everything since it means the developer would only build a 4 story building that fits in with the neighborhood better than the 5 story building that would be allowed.

The next project is a medical office and parking ramp development in a very urban neighborhood of Minneapolis. This would be a great suburban development but paid no attention to its urban location. It puts a parking ramp next to the midtown greenway, it doesn't have an entrance on the street--its entrance is 75 feet back on a driveway to the parking lot. It proposed a sign high on the building that no one would see since there is a building across the street of equal height (the proposed sign would be great in a suburban office "park"). The developer came to an earlier meeting for comments but has only made modest modifications. The Commission approved a bunch (technical term) of variances that were not controversial. We did approve the project with a lot of conditions that the developer did not like (but in my opinion, we didn't go far enough).

The last project is an expansion of supported housing in a Minneapolis neighborhood that already has a lot more than it's fair share of supportive housing. But on the other side, this is a really good provider with a long history of very good service to the community. Added to that is the complication that the Americans with Disabilities Act may or may not apply to this project. It seems to all boil down to a couple of technicalities that determine how many of the units can be considered "supportive housing." There is no community opposition to the project. We find that it only has a limited number of units that are "supportive housing" and approve the project.

We have really good planning staff but I tended to vote against their recommendations today. They're professionals and don't appear to take it personally.

We finally adjourn after a four hour meeting.

1 comment:

pce said...


Thanks for these in-depth, "inside" comments - very valuable. -Paul Ernst