The House of Lot

A Minneapolis neighborhood wants to put homes back on skinny urban properties. But will the city cooperate?

Closeted together for some nine hours already, the members of the jury are starting to get testy. With the air in the room growing distinctly stifling, the five-member group has only a few hours left to sift through 165 architectural designs. But their decision cannot be rushed. After all, say organizers of the event, held on a recent Saturday at the Powderhorn Park gym, the jurors are attempting to solve a problem found not only in this Minneapolis community, but in cities around the country--how to build houses on the small vacant lots scattered throughout urban neighborhoods.

"The rich can afford art," says James Wentling, an architect from Philadelphia who has become known to his fellow jurors as "the pragmatist." Wentling favors traditional homes; a radical design, he fears, would be unmarketable. But he soon finds himself in the minority. As jurors round a table laden with designs that made it through the first cut, they stop in front of the schematics for a bland, gray two-story home. James Cutler, an architect from Bainbridge Island, Wash., faints dramatically into a folding chair. "This looks like every spec home on the East Coast," he exclaims. Wentling pushes his glasses back and responds in the tone of a man defeated: "That's why it will sell." A quick vote is taken; the plan is out.

When the winning design from the little/LOTS competition is built, city and neighborhood subsidies will kick in one-third of the cost
When the winning design from the little/LOTS competition is built, city and neighborhood subsidies will kick in one-third of the cost

Leaders of the Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association (PPNA) had this kind of discussion in mind when they started the little/LOTS project more than two years ago. They challenged design firms around the country to submit ideas, then selected an all-star jury that spans the architectural spectrum--from Wentling, an advocate of affordable, practical structures, to Cutler, a nationally renowned architect who has worked on the archetypical unaffordable house, the Bill Gates mansion in Redmond, Wash. Together these jurors are charged with figuring out how to squeeze a three-to-four-bedroom house efficiently onto a lot less than 40 feet wide, build it for under $125,000, and make room for a garage and a garden without having the whole project feel claustrophobic.

There is no shortage of narrow lots in Powderhorn. When the neighborhood experienced its building boom in the years between the Depression and World War II, houses were squeezed together to accommodate buyers' tight finances. But by the '60s, explains little/LOTS juror and former Minneapolis planning director Paul Farmer, city planners had come to fear "urban overcrowding," and Minneapolis changed its zoning code to prohibit construction on lots less than 40 feet wide. (Most suburban cities require minimum lot sizes at least twice those in Minneapolis; St. Paul, on the other hand, allows lots as narrow as 30 feet.) As older homes were abandoned and fell to the wrecking ball, the city found itself with vacant, legally unbuildable lots on its hands. Minneapolis Community Development Agency spokeswoman Dawn Hagan says the agency owns 23 "substandard" lots in Powderhorn; there are no figures, she says, on how many residential parcels the MCDA owns citywide.

During his four-year tenure in Minneapolis, Farmer watched as the city tried to split "substandard" lots and sell them to adjacent houses as side yards; in some locations, residents proposed community gardens. Neither solution, he says, has proven to be overwhelmingly successful. Farmer, who now serves as executive director of planning and development in Eugene, Ore., made working on Minneapolis's sweeping revision of the zoning code one of his top priorities as planning director; when he was forced out last year, the project was still in the works. The revision is up for a City Council vote in the next several months.

A commanding, but fair-minded, presence in discussion, Farmer has no time for cookie-cutter designs. But, he says, the jury must also stay away from homes that depart too radically from the rest of the cityscape. If the little/LOTS design sticks out like a sore thumb, he notes, it will be forever stigmatized as "that subsidized house."

Subsidies will be necessary to build any house from the program, organizers say, because the expected $125,000 construction cost is far higher than the average market value in Powderhorn. City and neighborhood assistance is expected to bring the figure down to near $85,000. At that price, says local real estate agent Sandy Green, a new house could be "sold before they put a hole in the ground." Green, who has tried to build on smaller lots in South Minneapolis herself, says she's convinced there's a market for such homes. "It's not a marketing question, it's a political question. The city politicians need to know that a huge lawn isn't what everyone wants."

Marketing is also on Farmer's mind. With empty-nest boomers getting ready to leave big suburban houses, he says, "we have a 10-to-15-year window of opportunity to really add a lot of people back into many of our neighborhoods--if we can provide interesting places for them to live." The opinion seems to be shared by the two jurors most closely linked with the neighborhood--Michaela Mahady, a respected local architect and former Powderhorn resident, and local artist Florence Hill. "We're looking for a home like the ones already in Powderhorn," Hill says, "but they need to have a twist."

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