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To: Concerned Minneapolis Citizens
Date: May 20, 2019
Re: Shoreland Overlay District
The City Council approved, as expected, the Minneapolis 2040 plan.
And now a developer pushes a ten-story complex at Lake Street and James—yet another violation of Shoreland Overlay District (SOD) restrictions. These restrictions (extending 1000 feet from lakes and 300 feet from rivers and streams) limit the height of new construction to two and one-half stories, preserving access to light and air, as well as protecting existing vegetation and tree canopies.
Unfortunately, SOD restrictions have been routinely ignored, notably around the northwest shores of Bde Maka Ska, where multi-story apartments and towers now severely compromise sight lines, block the sunlight available to neighboring areas, and multiply hard surfaces, exacerbating storm runoff flows.
These tall buildings block the full force of our cold northwestern winds, reducing cooling from contact and evaporation. A further cause of lake (and urban) warming is the loss of tree canopies that overtop roof lines. The SOD limits on height and protection of surface vegetation safeguard these canopies. Trees are natural air conditioners. They block sunlight from roofs and hard surfaces, even as they sequester carbon and release oxygen and moisture. Unfortunately, despite strong opposition, two more towers are in the works.
We have renamed the lake, honoring its Dakota history. Should we not also protect it from environmental degradation?
Last autumn, as citizens raised concerns about the 2040 plan, Park Board Commissioner Meg Forney informed me that “While I served on the Planning Commission as the MPRB appointee, I expressed the need for the SOD. Our now Council President stated that ‘We, at the Planning Department, regard the SOD for rural areas only.’”
Forney noted further that, after having left his office as Assistant Superintendent of Planning, Bruce Chamberlain objected to the SOD as “draconian.”
In a meeting with constituents, Park Board Commissioner Jono Cowgill would not commit to the SOD height restrictions.
And at a Ward Ten public meeting, City Planner Heather Worthington referred to concerns about the loss of green urban spaces as “white pastoralism.”
But the demonstrated health benefits of natural environments belong to persons of every color, origin, and class. Our parks, lakes, and waterways are essential, especially for the economically disadvantaged—folks who have little choice but to live under crowded conditions, working too many hours in the day, surrounded by concrete and pavement, and with little access to earth, lakes, trees, and sky. When a city protects these, it honors a social obligation owed to all. Every child has a right to such spaces.
Why such hostility to the SOD’s protections? Removing them creates neither racial equity nor any significant number of new affordable homes or rentals—but has highly significant and irreversible impacts on lakes and waterways.
Such attitudes are dismissive of our jewel of a park system (its lakes the centerpiece), dismissive of the tremendous struggle over 150 years to develop and protect it, and dismissive of the reality that every loss to its integrity is permanent.
Short-term thinking caused the sale in 1952 of 32 acres of Theodore Wirth Park adjoining Brownie Lake to Prudential Insurance for $200,000 (a steal at $1,850,000 in current dollars). The Park Board was squeezed by politicians and business leaders. Those opposing the sale must be anti-business—even communist! (The current loud whisper: any opposing 2040 upzoning are racist.) A pristine oak-savannah terminal moraine was leveled.
At Brownie I now see muddy banks and green, stagnant water, a legacy of thousands of tons of earth bulldozed from steep hilltops and dumped close above the shoreline for a parking lot. Stretches of the lake bottom rose above water level, requiring extensive dredging. Natural springs dried up. A massive concrete structure rose, towering over Brownie and Cedar—now an empty, derelict office building.
Once Cedar and Brownie were crystal clear, spring-fed, the beaches sandy and clean. Now both tend toward green with algae blooms covering sandy shallows and disrupting sunfish nesting areas.
Minneapolis residents must resist those who would sacrifice our parks for financial or political gain. Every loss to the SOD is a loss to the integrity of our parks—and every loss is irreversible, just as the loss of 32 acres of Wirth Park has been irreversible—and just as every sight line lost and every acre of lawn and tree canopy lost to concrete, tarmac, and new construction will be irreversible. Minneapolis has a park system recognized as second to none in the world. It is an invaluable legacy for the future—for people of every economic status, every color, and every origin.
Erik F. Storlie, PhD