Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Granny Flats: Coming to an Alley Near You?

Adding density to Uptown is vital if the neighborhood wants to support the kind of walkable, urban lifestyle that so many residents desire. That doesn’t mean we need to line the streets with high-rise apartments, or tear down single-family homes to clear space for multifamily residences. A balance can, and should, be struck between the neighborhood’s traditional “character” (and I’m talking OVERALL character, not just height) and the need to provide more housing for more people.

I particularly like the idea of “granny” or “alley” flats (also called “accessory dwelling units,” or ADUs). These are smaller residences found in the backyards of homes. Some parts of Minneapolis, particularly the big mansions with surviving carriage houses, still have these. For the most part, though, the only structure found in most Uptown backyards is a garage.

Alley flats have a lot of benefits:

  • These units tend to be smaller, providing housing options for single people (including the “granny” looking to downsize to smaller digs) who don’t want or need to live in a big place.

  • The smaller size often also translates to cheaper rent, broadening at least the possibility of affordable (or semi-affordable) housing in the neighborhood.

  • The property owners – who often live in the main, front house – get some extra income to help pay their mortgage. This would assist larger families who would prefer to live in a house, but have a hard time paying an Uptown-sized mortgage.

  • We’ve all heard about the importance of “eyes on the street” in preventing crime; this would bring more eyes and ears to Uptown’s alleys.

  • Alley flats increase a neighborhood’s density without significantly altering its outwards appearance.

There are some potential negatives, too:

  • Increased density is going to impact parking. More people probably translates into more cars, although ideally it also means the population necessary to support a greater variety of daily essentials in the neighborhood, as well as increased access to both public transportation as well as car share programs – thereby making it easier for individuals and families to live a car-free life, or at least reduce the number of cars needed per household.

  • Increased density means more people, which could mean more noise, more traffic, more garbage, and possibly decreased green space. These issues could be alleviated with good planning, and are counteracted by the positives associated with increased appropriate density in Uptown.

Although these types of housing have always been popular in some parts of the country, communities sometimes see them as a negative. That’s been changing in recent years, as more and more cities and towns (including some wealthy enclaves filled with even more NIMBYs than Uptown) face the need for increasing density and housing options, and as baby boomers start to age, retire, and consider the benefits of moving to a smaller space.

Minneapolis has embraced the concept of alternative accessory dwellings in some of the neighborhoods along the Hiawatha Light Rail line, as well as in several other overlay districts throughout the city (North Phillips/Ventura Village, for example). While not necessarily allowed in Uptown, they are supported by many area residents. And while the Uptown Small Area Plan does not specifically address granny flats, the CARAG Master Plan does – a positive sign, as CARAG in particular is a hotbed of anti-development activists. I’m hoping that this means that granny flats and ADUs are something that we can all get behind. I called the City to get some more information on the current situation, and was reminded that although a specific residence may not currently meet current zoning requirements for a granny flat it is possible to be granted a variance. I hope that the City code will continue to be tweaked to make it easier for these types of residences to be built; perhaps this will be spurred along if Uptown gets its LRT line. I’m not in the market to construct a granny flat anytime soon, but the possibility is intriguing, and it will certainly be something I at least ask about when I start the process of purchasing an Uptown-area home.


  1. There is very real potential for the granny flat idea in areas like South Minneapolis. It's common to find homes that have been maintained reasonably well, but garages that are cockeyed-wonky falling down. Usually, it's just as cost-effective for residents to build a new garage than to try and save the wonky old one. Building a new garage with a small accessory unit on the second floor wouldn't cost much more - especially if homeowners are savvy enough to do the finish work themselves. In fact, the only real difficult part about it is trying to provide water & sewer connections for the new unit.

  2. I definitely agree with this post. While not my first choice for adding density, alley flats certainly do it without causing any major problems. One benefit of alley flats that you forgot to mention was that they increase the density of an area slowly, adding just a couple residents at a time, rather than the two hundred or so residents added by tearing down a couple homes for a 4-6 story building. Alley flats are less likely to "destroy the character" of a neighborhood, and thus keep the NIMBYs happy.

  3. Recently Granny Flats have been classed as secondary dwellings under the current legislation which has made the entire process a lot easier, each council has some differences in their regulations and you should contact them for this information.
    Portable Granny Flats