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The House of Lot

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

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.

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."

Yet at the awards ceremony the next day, it's clear that the house with the most "twist" has ultimately fallen short. Speaking to a packed crowd in the Walker Auditorium, juror Cutler can't hide his frustration with the second-place winner, a submission from a Tennessee design team he considers "head and shoulders above the rest." The long, linear house is over budget and narrower than the contest's 22-foot limit. Still, he explains, the jury fell in love with the plan's placement of a garden alongside the house, and the large number of windows on both stories allowing for it to be viewed from many rooms.

Had the Tennessee architects been allowed a few more days of tweaking, Cutler tells the Walker crowd, the design would have met the contest guidelines. The same is true for other submissions that failed because of some easily corrected flaw, such as a garage plunked down in the middle of the back yard. Cutler vows to commend the architects for their work, and to point out each plan's mistakes.

Compared with the spirited debate surrounding the Tennessee design, the announcement of the contest's winner comes almost as an afterthought. The two-story home crafted by the Grand Forks, N.D., firm Meland, Hepper looks like an A-frame welded to a narrow rectangle. It is compact, efficient, a commendable design, the jury says, before going back to discussing the Tennessee house.

Now that the contest is over, organizers admit, the hard part of little/LOTS begins. PPNA will have to buy a lot (most likely from the MCDA or Hennepin County), meet with block clubs, modify the design in conjunction with the architects, line up contractors and subsidies, and start working on a book documenting little/LOTS--all by the end of this year. The time line is optimistic to say the least, especially given that the fate of Minneapolis's zoning revision is yet to be determined. At press time, drafts did not contain any major changes to lot-size requirements; however, city officials say they will allow builders to apply for variances.

"The MCDA isn't fighting the notion of building on 40-foot lots," says Earl Pettiford, the agency's manager of housing development. "We're interested in citizen input." But, he adds, while some neighborhoods want to put houses back on small lots, others are working to expand the size of the average property. The North Side's Hawthorn neighborhood, for instance, wants a minimum lot width of 50 feet. "The MCDA wants to work with Powderhorn as partners," Pettiford says. "If it's an effort that they want to pursue, we will try to facilitate it." For now, PPNA insists that its winning design will not end its life as a blueprint. The little/LOTS book, organizers say, will include construction photos.


Designs from the little/LOTS competition will be shown at the University of Minnesota's School of Architecture (89 Church St. S.E., Mpls.; (612) 624-7866 or (612) 722-4817) February 20-26. The exhibit will be open 7:30-10:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, 1-5 p.m. Saturday; admission is free.

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