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The Zoning Code regulates the height of buildings, the bulk of buildings, and the residential density of structures in the City. Bulk of buildings is regulated through a maximum Floor Area Ratio (FAR). The density of residential units is regulated by minimum requirements for lot area per residential unit. These standards can be modified if uses meet certain public objectives.


Building height is an important reflection of neighborhood or district character. The Zoning Code places height restrictions in each zoning district. Outside of downtown, ordinary height restrictions range from 2.5 to 6 stories.

The typical height restriction for Commercial districts is 4 stories or 56 feet, whichever is less. OR2, R4 and R5 districts, which often adjoin larger commercial districts, also have height limitations of 4 stories or 56 feet. Industrial districts also have a height limitation of 4 stories/56 feet.

One exception is the C1 District, where the limitation for a single-use building is the lesser of 2.5 stories or 35 feet. Mixed-use buildings in a C1 District may be as tall as 3 stories or 42 feet, whichever is less. C1 zoning is typical at smaller-scale neighborhood commercial nodes.

Building heights are less restricted in higher density areas of the City, such as the University of Minnesota area, Loring Park and the downtown riverfront. R6 and OR3 districts permit a maximum height of 6 stories/84 feet, which reflects the building form more consistent in these areas.

The height of any building can be increased, however, with a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) that takes into consideration factors that include the existing character of the area, future plans for the area, and the impact on surrounding properties in terms of light, air circulation, and shadowing.

It should be noted that regulatory limits on building bulk (FAR) place practical limits on a building's height, as does the relative cost of constructing taller buildings with masonry and steel. Nevertheless, in many cases, allowances for greater Floor Area Ratio (FAR) make taller buildings possible.

Floor Area Ratio (FAR)

Floor Area Ratio (FAR) is a measure of the bulk of buildings. It is calculated by adding the area of each floor the development, then dividing this sum by the total area of the property. Floor area calculations consider neither parking areas nor unfinished basement areas6. For example, a two-story building occupying one-half of a site has an FAR of 1.0.

FAR requirements say nothing about how the bulk of the development is distributed on the site. A taller building can be built if it occupies a smaller portion of a site, albeit a CUP would be required if it exceeds the height limitation. Alternatively, shorter buildings can occupy more of the site.

The Zoning Code establishes maximum floor area ratios (FAR) for each zoning district. FAR limitations are 1.7 in all Commercial districts, except for C3A-Activity Center, where it is 2.7. Residential FAR is 1.0 in the R3 District, 1.5 in the R4 District, 2.0 in the R5 district, and 3.0 in the R6 district. FAR in the OR2 and OR3 districts are 2.5 and 3.5 respectively. All industrial districts allow maximum FAR of 2.7.

Residential Density

'Lot area per residential unit' is a measure of residential density. It is found by dividing the total lot area by the number of residential units. A smaller number indicates greater residential density.

The Zoning Code establishes a minimum lot area for each residential unit, which sets a maximum allowable residential density. For multiple-family residential uses, these range from 2,500-sq. ft. in the R3 District to 300-sq. ft. in the OR3 district (greatest number of units allowed). Two districts can have the same FAR limitations, but differ on the required lot area per residential unit (e.g., C1 and C2 districts). Both districts could have the same floor area of residential use, but one district could support a greater number of smaller units. The Board of Adjustment or Planning Commission can grant a variance to the lot area restriction by up to 20 percent7.

Although the City does not require a minimum residential density per se, it prohibits the construction of single and two-family residences where higher density development might otherwise occur. Of the multi-family residence districts, R5 and R6 prohibit both new single and new two-family dwellings. This is also the case for OR2, OR3, C3A, C3S, and C4. Mixed-use or multiple-family districts that permit new single or two-family dwellings include C1, C2, R3, and R4.

Density Bonuses

Density bonuses allow the opportunity to cumulatively increase a project's density in instances where a project furthers the City's objectives for underground or structured parking, mixed-use districts and affordable housing.

1. The Zoning Code provides an automatic 20% increase in the allowable FAR and the allowable number of residential units when all parking is provided within the building, entirely below grade, or in a parking garage of at least two levels8. This applies to the R3-R6 districts, OR2 and OR3 districts, all commercial districts, and the Industrial Living Overlay District (ILOD).

2. The Zoning Code provides an automatic 20% increase in the allowable FAR and the allowable number of residential units when at least twenty (20) percent of the dwelling units are affordable to households whose income does not exceed fifty (50) percent of the metropolitan median household income, as determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Housing must remain affordable continuously for a period of not less than fifteen (15) years to qualify as affordable housing. This bonus applies to the OR districts, all commercial districts, the Industrial Living Overlay District (ILOD), and for cluster and multi-family (5+ units) housing development in the residence districts.

3. In commercial districts, the Zoning Code provides a 20% increase in the allowable FAR and the allowable number of residential units when at least 50% of a ground floor of a residential building is devoted to commercial uses. In the C1 District, the base height limitation is also increased to three stories or 42 feet, whichever is less9.

4. For Planned Unit Developments (which require a site of at least two acres), the FAR may be increased 20% for the purpose of promoting a project that provides additional site amenities10.

Ensuring transition from established neighborhoods

Transitions in building height and scale can be accomplished through setbacks and height restrictions. The Zoning Code does not require setbacks for structures in Commercial or Industrial districts, except where abutting Residence or Office Residence districts or residential structures. In such cases, minimum setbacks are based on those required by the adjoining district (See 548.140 and 550.160).

As described above, a building that exceeds the normal height limitations of the code must obtain a CUP. The analysis takes into consideration factors including the character and plans for the area and the impact on surrounding properties in terms of light, air circulation, and shadowing. A building that distributes its bulk and height furthest from a sensitive use is preferable to one with uniform bulk and height.

6 Basement areas are included in calculations if half of the height is above the curb line.

7 The applicant must meet the required findings for variances in Section 525.500.

8 Section 548.130a

9 Section 548.130b

10 Sections 527.140 and 527.150

Last updated Nov 3, 2011