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Triplex building permits requested in Minneapolis this year: 3

Remember when everyone's biggest fear was the 2040 Plan and... triplexes?

Remember when everyone's biggest fear was the 2040 Plan and... triplexes? Mark Vancleave, Star Tribune

It was around this time last year that the Minneapolis City Council finally enacted the 2040 plan, which, among many other things, effectively upzoned the entire city.

Whereas before, the vast majority of Minneapolis was reserved exclusively for single-family homes, now duplexes and triplexes could be built anywhere in the city starting at the beginning of 2020.

The decision came amid heated arguments about what this would do to local neighborhoods. One worry was that upzoning the city would cause hungry developers to raze blocks of single-family homes and replace them with swathes of luxurious triplexes. (This much emotion over zoning is a little hard to comprehend amid COVID-19 lockdowns and police protests, but back in the day, people were stealing each other’s yard signs over this.)

We’re now more than halfway into 2020, and we have some concrete data pertaining to the threat of bulldozer attacks and a triplex-pocalypse.

So far, that number is... three.

That's the total number of building permits requested from the city for new triplexes, according to Minneapolis manager of code development Jason Whittenberg.

“That scale of housing hasn’t been real popular,” he says. There tends to be a “missing middle” when it comes to new housing. You see plenty of single-family homes and plenty of large apartment buildings, but anything in the two to 20-unit range tends to get sidelined. They’re not as easy to finance, or as tempting for developers profit-wise.

“It was never our expectation that large swathes of the city would transform from single-family homes overnight,” he says.

The citywide total -- all three for renovation or conversion of existing properties, rather than new builds -- is less than half the near-term plans of a single man, Terry Robertson, according to the Twin Cities Business Journal. The Twin Cities developer already owns eight vacant lots in north Minneapolis, and hopes to have as many as twice that by year's end.

Robertson envisions triplexes that would "extend the quality of what [his firm does] in Edina into Minneapolis so inner-city folks can have a better product than what is currently being offered by developers." Some of his planned triplexes will be sold, while others would be held onto as rentals.

Clearly, he's the anomaly.

Eric Myers, director of government affairs for Minneapolis Area Realtors association, blames lines of city building code.

He says the association “applauds” Minneapolis for ambitious, forward-thinking policies like the 2040 Plan, a clear sign the city’s hungry for more, denser, and more affordable housing. But even though new zoning laws permit triplexes, the underlying code was still written with single-family homes in mind. Height restrictions are the same, as are setback requirements. Triplexes built on single-family lots have to fit within the footprint of the original building.

“Minneapolis has a lot of 40-foot lots,” he says. “A lot of triplexes aren’t going to fit.”

It’s possible to clear those hurdles by requesting a variance from the city, but that, Myers says, is a “cumbersome and expensive process” most developers would rather not bother with. Not when there’s easier money to be made elsewhere.

That isn’t to say triplexes would never work in the city, Myers says. He thinks a few regulations would have to change to make it feasible or desirable on the building side of things, but the demand is already there.

“Given the overall demand in Minneapolis, any new housing choice is definitely going to be snatched up,” he says. The association’s monthly market reports back this up. Demand is “healthy,” supply is “constrained,” asked-for prices are being met in full. The existing citizenry, as near as we can gather thus far, do not seem to be fleeing unrest and protests, as conservative social media users have been claiming for the past few weeks.

People want to live here. Developers want to build here. It’s just… harder than you might expect.

Whittenberg says more triplexes may be coming as developers learn to navigate the municipal landscape, trying to figure out a triplex model that “works.” It wouldn’t surprise him if we saw an increase in permits in the coming years.

But for now, the bulldozers gather dust, and the promised triplex onslaught is on hold.