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Talking Headways

Talking Headways Podcast: Details of Development Reform in Minnesota, Part I

Jim Kumon of Electric Housing discusses his work as a developer and urban policy educator in the Twin Cities.

This week we’re joined by Jim Kumon, Principal at Electric Housing, to discuss his work as a developer and urban policy educator in the Twin Cities. We chat about his sustainable development project, what St. Paul learned from Minneapolis 2040 and how zoning reform and transportation intersect.

Scroll down for a partial edited excerpt from our conversation, or click here for an AI-generated full transcript.

Jeff Wood: So Minneapolis is in place, obviously there's lawsuits going on, but then St Paul's looking at similar things and watching from afar — what do they learn?

Jim Kumon: That turned out to be a fascinating process because they didn't go quite as far — well, let me put a little context around this. Every 10 years, every city in the seven county metropolitan area of Minneapolis-St. Paul has to submit a comprehensive plan, so we're all in the same cycle in that way. St. Paul put some things in their comprehensive plan, but they did not enshrine this threshold that Minneapolis did. And so from that perspective, they maintained a little extra flexibility in some way because the great part about the comp plan policy saying, "We're gonna have three units per lot," was that it set the floor — but it also inadvertently set a ceiling, because then it was more difficult to go above three units as well, in a certain way.

So St. Paul ended up going down a different pathway. I can't tell you for sure whether it was on purpose or not. I can only tell you about things that happened later when I got to know the people who were there involved. They got to watch about two years of this process play out, especially after the comp plan was passed and actual zoning ordinance had to follow. Remember, comprehensive plans have no rule of law, right, with development applications. You have to change your actual zoning rules to be in line with your policies. The problem was that there was a pretty big staff shift in between that time — it takes like two years for this to happen. Some of the key authors of the comprehensive plan were no longer around at the city at the point in time where the zoning ordinance had to be put in place.

So there was a lot of watering down and political pressure started to change things and they got some things in place right before the end of the [City Council President] Lisa Bender's term. She left office and then everything since then, kind of got watered down. So St. Paul is watching this and saying, "Okay, well we have a different situation, what can we do?" And Luis Pereira and others — you know, he's a planning director in the City of St. Paul — and Emma Sigworth, as well, was a principal planner in charter of my little project, which was assisting the city to revamp its one-to-four unit housing rules. Their directive came from actually a transit-oriented provision in their comp plan saying, "Hey, we think we need to have higher land use intensity around our transit corridors. Here, planning department, go make that happen."

Hilariously enough, they had a new director at the time and she came from Oklahoma City where I'd actually done some work, so knew of me and was like, "Hey, doesn't that guy live in Minneapolis?" She calls me up, like, out of the blue and I'm like, "Oh, you're in St. Paul now?" And she's like, "Yeah, I'd like to have you involved with this housing stuff that we're doing, the zoning planning stuff." I said, "Okay, great." So I get hooked up with the planning department.

What she wanted to do, what she was trying to bring to the table, was this idea that I had been putting out through technical assistance products that we've been doing at Incremental Development Alliance, which was actually taking a pro forma based approach: Let's not just talk about what number we wanna pick out of a hat to put on a lot. What can we actually get done? If we pick four units on a lot, but we can't make four units pencil, we're not gonna get any quadplexes, or we're not gonna get four units on a lot, you know, we're gonna get only what the market can bear. And so that was the interesting outtake from Minneapolis having zoning rules in place for two years, was that we had like 15 duplexes and triplexes that were built or permitted. It's not like there was an overwhelming number of these things. I think there's 120,000, you know, single family lots in the city of Minneapolis and we got 15 new buildings.

It's not gonna be a tidal wave. It's gonna take a long time in a city that's mostly built out. We don't have a lot of vacant lots. And so they were like, the numbers are showing that we're not gonna see a tidal wave, why is that? We were able to then take that a little further and say, what about two units in every backyard? There was a lot of concern in St. Paul — there's some historic neighborhoods on the west side especially. And they were like, well, we have one and a half story bungalow houses — we're not interested in, you know, tear downs. I said, well, you shouldn't want tear downs and you have beautiful houses in these neighborhoods. But that doesn't mean we can't find a way to add more housing units. That's, to me, some of the lessons learned from all of this — is trying to make sure that we are less focused on a single thing.

We got really hung up in Minneapolis. The narrative got hung up. Triplexes are rather tricky things to build. And if you're not in Minnesota, where we have a carve out for smaller housing buildings that don't need to not have sprinkler systems, most states in the country, you need to have a sprinkler system in a triplex, so that's not the easiest thing to build nor is it the right scale. Most of what we need right now is one bedroom apartments — those fly off the shelf, you can't build 'em fast enough. We don't really need more old houses that have three or four bedrooms, which is what most of Minneapolis is. We need smaller units, and they can fit in your backyard.

Heck, you could put two of them stuck on top of each other where your garage is at, or next to your garage. That's, I think, the key part of what we were able to accomplish. In October, myself and Neil Heller, my co-conspirator helping out with this project in St. Paul, were like, all right, we're gonna take every cool thing we learned in Portland, in Seattle. He's on the West coast, and I was taking stuff from Minneapolis and our colleagues in Atlanta. I'm like, we're gonna take every cool idea we've ever thought of and we're gonna throw it at this project. We're gonna be like, let's just see what they think. And you know, they'll pick a handful of them and we'll go on with life.

The City of St. Paul didn't pick a handful of them. They took darn near all of them. They took them to their commission and said, "Here, we read a bunch of pro formas and we tested a bunch of actual buildings on actual lots — the ones we actually have in St. Paul, not the ones we wish we had. And here's what it looks like when we try to build this stuff out." And so there's a hundred page long staff report on their website, and in there [are] some diagrams that we drew in SketchUp. And we said, "Here, this is actually what it would look like." And so we did all these different permutations trying to do infill and backyards and adding on to houses that maybe are on big lots or all these different things to try to make that couple extra units happen however it could fit into our existing built environment.

And they found a way to code most of them into possibility. And I thought that it was a dream to actually find a city who would think that carefully about how infill really works, and not this sort of argument about, you know, a building coming in and being plopped down, you know, that's out of size or character with a neighborhood. It was awesome. My hat's off to them that it was a 7-0 vote. It was amazing to watch it, because I kept waiting for the shoe to drop. I'm like, there's no way. I mean, we had — we still had, you know — a lot of derision here in Minneapolis even after we had the comp plan passed about these type of issues.

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