Bloomington passes zoning reform proposal

Bloomington City Hall
Bloomington City Hall

The city looks to its past as a framework for its future

At its May 22 meeting, the Bloomington City Council voted 5-2 to adopt its zoning reform proposal.

The city’s new zoning controls include a reduction in lot size, a 60-foot-lot-width minimum and increased ability and process for lot splits and two-family dwellings. 

During a March public hearing, Glen Markegard, planning director for the city of Bloomington, framed the proposal as the city reintroducing the housing option that fueled Bloomington’s post-war growth. These homes are not allowed to be built in the city today. 

The minimum single-family construction costs would be reduced by nearly $50,000, excluding land costs, according to a cost analysis provided by Housing Industry News publisher Housing First Minnesota at the request of the city of Bloomington. The minimum construction cost for a two-family structure would be decreased by $42,000. 

“The city’s new residents will see significant reductions in the minimum construction requirements,” said Nick Erickson, senior director of housing policy for Housing First Minnesota.

Erickson, who prepared the cost analysis for the city, noted the city’s plan reflects the “bold vision” proposed in several states this year.

“Bloomington’s forward-thinking proposal can serve as the basis for statewide zoning reform. Reduced parking minimums, smaller lots, adding more housing options and the elimination of floor area requirements would go a long way in legalizing new starter homes in Minnesota,” said Erickson. 

Carveout fails

Residents in Bloomington’s western section sought to be carved out of the proposal. Residents sought a 22,000-square-foot lot minimum, double the proposal for single-family lots. 

Under the Residential Environmental Protection District proposal put forth by residents of the Normal Ridge subdivision, certain subdivisions would see a reduction in the number of trees allowed to be removed, no changes to the impervious surface limits of 35% and additional fencing requirement changes for wildlife protection. 

The proposal was not adopted. 

Bloomington not alone

As states across the country begin to examine state-level zoning reform, cities are also getting in on the action.

Minneapolis made national headlines in 2019 when it enacted its modest densification proposal. In January 2023, the Minneapolis suburb of Richfield unanimously passed zoning reform, labeled “Legalize Richfield” by supporters. 

In May 2023, the city of Toronto recently became the largest city in North America to enact zoning reform. 

A 2022 Zillow study of the 26 largest metropolitan areas found there is wide public support for common elements of modest densification proposals. According to the survey, 73% of homeowners and 84% of renters support at least one element of common zoning reform options.

St. Paul seeks to keep pace

In April, St. Paul’s Planning Commission approved the city’s Phase II zoning amendment, which would allow up to four-unit housing projects in areas of the city zoned for single-family housing.

Luke Hanson, the co-chair of a local housing advocacy group Sustain St. Paul, said the proposal respects the current neighborhood structure while allowing communities and the city as a whole to grow.

“In neighborhoods where no types of housing are allowed except for detached single-family homes, the only families who can afford to live there are those who can afford to buy or rent an entire house,” said Hanson. “If these amendments pass, it will finally be legal to produce less-expensive housing options in every neighborhood — to retrofit a large single-family house into two or three dwellings, to build a fourplex or a cluster of little cottages on an empty lot, or add an Accessory Dwelling Unit to a large backyard or side yard.”

The Center for Economic Inclusion also supports the move. “We believe the legalization of right-sized housing is an important step toward building the homes communities of color need,” said Isaac Russell, director of public policy at the Center for Economic Inclusion.  

As for Bloomington, at least one local official hopes the city’s reforms can be a template for statewide action. Shawn Nelson, city council member and remodeler, said, “The city’s approach was simple: bring back the homes that built Bloomington. These homes, with less parking requirements, no square foot minimums, on smaller lots, bring us closer to ensuring Bloomington will continue to grow, and make homeownership more accessible to a greater number of residents.”