The Duluth city council was on the forefront of urban planning debates this past Monday, as it discussed vacation rentals and density within the city limits on the same night. In both cases, I’m going to poke at urban planning orthodoxy mildly, not because I think it is wrong, exactly, but because I think Duluth needs to ask some questions rather than simply accepting trendy thinking. The details:
Vacation Dwelling Units and Neighborhood Effects
The first debate involved a permit to allow a vacation dwelling unit (VDU; think Airbnb) on Berwick Court, a cul-de-sac off of Arrowhead Road near Hartley Park not far before Kenwood Avenue as one heads west. John Ramos at the Reader covered this one in detail when it was before the Planning Commission, so I won’t belabor the background. At Monday’s meeting, several neighbors said the VDU was wrong for many reasons, though they gave only one concrete one beyond the vague “character of the neighborhood” stuff one always hears on this sort of issue: an immediate neighbor is old and not exactly in possession of all of her faculties, and may have some unfortunate run-ins with VDU guests. Council President Joel Sipress delicately described his interaction with her as “challenging” when he went up to do his due diligence on the property. As a result, he and Councilor Em Westerlund amended the permit to require the addition of a screen between the VDU and the elderly neighbor. Both the amendment and the permit passed 8-1, with Councilor Noah Hobbs preferring to stick with the original screenless recommendation from the Planning Commission, and Councilor Howie Hanson opposing the thing entirely in a screed against an the “erosion of neighborhoods.”
This was an issue that blew up normal battle lines and inspired good debate. As with the Uber debate two weeks prior, the normally solidly progressive Sipress expressed considerable leeriness of this supposed progress, and went into his nuanced monologue mode to worry about the effect on neighborhoods. Councilor Barb Russ seconded this, and suggested the city revisit the criteria for VDUs and find some way to limit dramatic changes. Councilor Jay Fosle, normally the voice of no to this sort of newfangled scheme, showered love on VDUs, saying they created economic activity and scoffing at the suggestion that “a bunch of nasty people will come and rent the house.” Hobbs, meanwhile, brought up the biggest sticking point with any neighborhood-based policy: how on earth do we devise a “hierarchy of neighborhoods” for awarding of VDUs without making some potentially prejudicial decisions? Sipress and Russ both readily conceded this point. Anyone who’s observed city politics knows this runs the risk of just opening up a door for whoever yells loudest to get permits denied, and that these people are inevitably going to be older, more affluent people who have the time and resources to devote to hammering city councils.
If the city does revisit this and sees a need for continued limits of VDUs, I would advocate for quotas within neighborhoods, set by some blanket standard such as population. This would remove the influence of well-connected neighbors and prevent the emergence of “vacation rental ghettoes.” That phrase sounds silly as I write it, which perhaps betrays my natural bias here: in principle I think VDUs make a lot of sense. However, I prefer not to make unfounded assumptions about how their consequences at a large scale, and while this is a different phenomenon from the fashion in which neighborhoods tip from majority homeownership to long-term rentals, a neighborhood that achieves some critical mass of homes without long-term residents does probably start to erode some. (No, one or two houses on a cul-de-sac do not represent that sort of critical mass.) I also think decisions that take good single family housing stock off the market may pose some problems in a city like Duluth, as the council’s next great planning debate showed all too clearly.
The Great Density Debate
The other hot button issue involved a resolution that, as initially worded, would have encouraged the city to consider “high density zoning”—basically, taller buildings—in its ongoing comprehensive plan process. Councilor Zack Filipovich brought it forward, and took a beating for his trouble. A big part of the issue was the process, which Filipovich conceded: this resolution appeared seemingly out of the blue immediately before the previous week’s agenda session, and Hobbs seemed to speak for many on the council when he said he’d wished they’d had a chance to debate this before it came before them all as a whole. He and Sipress, who once again seemed quite presidential in his ability to give a nuanced take on the concerns of the council writ large, offered an amendment which dramatically reworked the resolution, and instead pitched it as a call for greater density using all potential development tools, from infill to redevelopment to townhomes.
No one found this broader emphasis controversial, though Filipovich tried again to get at his original point, which seemed to come out of his conversations with city planning staff: they think the city is already doing what it needs to do on the infill and redevelopment fronts (which is mostly true), but needed this added pitch to encourage height. The rest of the council balked at this, given the political sensitivity of views; Hanson went off about how this might be in response to specific projects (which Filipovich roundly denied), while Fosle found the whole debate much ado about nothing, as it is the unified development code, not the comp plan, that ultimately settles these questions. While there is probably some merit to further outlining standards for upward growth, Duluth’s planners need to do a much better sales job instead of ramming a quick resolution through. In the end, the councilors tabled the whole mess.
Discussion strayed far and wide and to interesting points, though, and one of the more frequent topics was Hermantown. Filipovich first noted that it is the fastest growing city in the region (which is true), even as its prices are not inflating, whereas Duluth’s are doing so despite the fact the city isn’t growing. Real estate listings in Hermantown are up considerably, whereas Duluth’s market only seems to get tighter and tighter. Hobbs countered that this was a bad analogy for this resolution, as Hermantown’s growth was anything but upward: instead, it sprawls outward far more so than Duluth. Given Duluth’s relative lack of available land and aging infrastructure that is difficult to maintain, let alone extend, that sort of growth pattern is not a realistic option at any sort of scale.
The Hermantown debate also illuminated the battle lines between those who we might call the critics of the happy talk about Duluth’s direction in recent years (Fosle and Hanson) and the liberal optimists’ club. I will counter one of Fosle’s critiques, in which he wondered where this supposed job growth was coming from in a city with a stagnant population: while the Duluth metro area may not be getting dramatically larger, its job growth over the past decade is reasonably good, and relative to its population growth is actually very good when compared to most peer cities. (If someone wants numbers to back this up, I can oblige.) As I’ve been at pains to note in other posts, the metro area has been growing steadily since 1990—not quickly, but steadily—and basically all of this growth is beyond the city limits, namely in Hermantown. As Hobbs noted, these outlying areas have the obvious perk of having a lot of available land, and Fosle and Hanson tagged on a few additional concerns that may lead people to move beyond the city limits, such as perceptions of crime or newer infrastructure or a desire for space. (No one mentioned the other major driver I’d put up next to land availability, though. Hint: it involves a different Duluth elected body that I cover on this blog from time to time.)
Still, I think the Hermantown-Duluth comparison is illuminating, though perhaps not in the way councilors thought it was. Whatever the benefits of density, large new apartment or condo complexes do little to make Duluth appealing to a lot of the people who are electing to move to Hermantown and its ilk. To the extent that housing decisions drive this move—and they certainly do—any response by Duluth to try to stem that tide will require an expansion of the single-family housing stock. Given the relative lack of buildable land within city limits, that’s going to mean renovation (or teardowns) and infill or bust. That isn’t cheap, and requires further study to understand the costs, but if the city does want to retain younger families and build the tax base through housing development—a goal I firmly support—I see no other option at this point.
This doesn’t invalidate the broader emphasis on density, which is spot on, especially when it comes to commercial property. On the residential side, I think the city can handle a few more Bluestones and Endis, and would wholeheartedly support them. However, I’m skeptical that the market justifies a broader glut of market-rate apartment complexes that would build the tax base. Duluth doesn’t have a ton of upwardly mobile twenty-somethings, and those who are tend to get on the marriage-and-kids train faster than in other cities; for that matter, there is still a reasonably affordable single-family housing stock. (Yes, options are tight, but the market here still looks heavenly for this soon-to-be-house-hunting 27-year-old when compared to Minneapolis, to say nothing of anything on the coasts.) And while there have been some increases in other populations that lend themselves to density—seniors, low-income people—the sort of dense housing they need isn’t going to prove a windfall for city coffers.
I’ll quickly note that I’m not saying Duluth shouldn’t build dense housing for these populations; the city does have some real affordability concerns, and I applaud the recent push to get more lower-income units in a development in Duluth Heights, which is both near jobs and may help de-concentrate poverty. We do need to be clear-eyed about the realities of who uses dense development, though, and recognize that there’s a clear role for the Hermantowns of the world to house some of these people, too. The density gospel in contemporary urban planning gets a lot right, but it’s not a panacea, either. We need to think beyond that to get to the heart of issues.