West of France Avenue

A conversation with Edina Mayor Jim Hovland

An attorney, Jim Hovland was elected Edina mayor in 2005. Photo by Brian Lambert
An attorney, Jim Hovland was elected Edina mayor in 2005. Photo by Brian Lambert

Attorney Jim Hovland is in the midst of a run as mayor of Edina that began in 2005 and, following his most recent re-election, will stretch on to at least 2021.

No mayor of any city or village anywhere ever enjoys 100-percent job approval. A street of a dozen merchants or homeowners will have at least a dozen different ideas about city services and planning. But — unscientific survey here — Hovland gets consistently good marks for handling the mechanics of city government and working the town.

An (old-school) Republican who switched to over to the Democrats a decade ago, Hovland is a remarkably reliable presence at city and private functions all over Edina, seemingly every night of the week. Asked if he ever wastes an evening at home with a beer and a ballgame, he chuckled, “Not too often.”

We met at the Starbucks next to Lunds & Byerly’s on West 50th Street, where he greeted a half dozen patrons, to talk about matters related to “east Edina.” The following has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Southwest Journal: Edina is currently working on a new comprehensive plan for development citywide. Simultaneously, a small area plan for the 44th & France district is going through presentations and public meetings.

Given your comments at a recent council meeting about the evolving reality of first ring suburbs like Edina, where you’ve pointed out that time and population growth have forever changed the reality of the relationship between cities like Edina and Minneapolis, I’m curious how you see the need to accept the realities of, for example, greater density, playing in these long-term policies?

Hovland: Well, the perspective for the eastern part of the city, east of (Highway) 100 and north of 50th, since that’s what we’re talking about here, has to be on maintaining neighborhood character. While there are some areas where more density can be accommodated, you still have to maintain that neighborhood character.

In the situation at 44th & France, we had a developer (Ted Carlson) come forward with a plan and we asked him to hit the pause button, which he did, until the small area plan can be completed. The specific issue there, it seems, will come down to height, with everyone now talking about tapering (Carlson’s planned four-story, 64-unit apartment complex) down to the neighborhood.

There’s going to be an accommodation to increased density, but not too much. It will be, I think, kind of like what we did over at 49 1⁄2 St. (with the soon-to-commence, 110-unit, five-story Collaborative project).

But the benefits of increased density overall may be seen better down around Southdale. Down there I think over time we’ll see more requests coming for increased height and density, and the final analyses will have to be made at that time. (Hovland was the lone Council vote in favor of a twin 20-plus-story towers complex on the west side of France Avenue across from Southdale.)

But the thing is, if you say the primary emphasis of Edina planning is the protection and enhancement of single-family neighborhoods, what are the implications of that? What does that mean?

You think of the obvious things in terms of traffic and beauty and quality of life and public safety. But what about the single-family homeowner who shares the burden of maintaining all this stuff we own together? It’s like owning a massive house. You have to take care of the basement, I gotta take care of the roof. I have to keep it structurally sound.

So I ask: Where and how do we get the best bang for the buck? What’s the best subsidy for the single-family homeowner?

Well, it’s density, frankly. That’s the point I was making at that meeting you’re talking about. Density and height, where it’s appropriate, is the best way to relieve some of the burden from the single-family homeowner.

 

Watching the neighborhood response to Ted Carlson’s project at 44th & France, I don’t sense a lot of buy-in to the density argument there.

I think you’re right.

 

Some of the response feels like knee-jerk resistance to any kind of change. For others, it’s more nuanced. They want it “done right,” maintaining “neighborhood character” and such, which of course means different things to different people. All of which comes with the irony that a majority, I think, would like to see a more attractive, pedestrian-friendly district there. How do you sell your view of the positive benefits of density?

Well, you’re putting your finger on something we’ve been wrestling with, too. And that is, how do you have a conversation about density and have it be, for the most part, something people have a common vision about and the places it might be appropriate?

At 44th & France I think the conversation will be how much over three [stories] will be appropriate. But there are a lot of people who don’t want it over two.

But to your point, I do think we need to encourage a wider conversation about density. At the Council we’ve had people in to talk about it. And it’s worth pointing out that some of that conversation with some of these experts noted the greater taxable value in rehabbing older buildings as opposed to bringing in big box retailers.

 

As I say, I have this sense that most of the neighbors around 44th & France would like to see upgrades, in terms of wider sidewalks, landscaping, burying power lines. Can that really happen without being attached to a private development project?

Private, marketplace-driven improvements is one way to do it. But another way to do it is like it was done down at Centennial Lakes, where you lay in a public amenity that becomes such a draw private development wants to spring up around it. That’s what’s happened with The Promenade down there.

 

The 44th & France Small Area Plan has seen proposals for an elaborate, and what appears to be very expensive, covered parking facility behind The Convention Grill, one with a lovely landscaped park on top.

Yeah, that’s where I was going. It seems to me there could be some kind of public amenity down there that would spur some activity around it. I don’t think it’d have to be just Carlson’s project. I think, with some kind of amenity, developers would look at other properties on that block where Dick’s Barbers is. The Linhoff photo building seems like a tired building, and you’ve got that quirky looking building next to it with the parking lot underneath and the yoga studio up above. That one doesn’t seem to me to fit the character of the neighborhood.

With the covered parking lot idea, where you landscape the top of it into a park or public space, maybe you can use a [Tax Increment Financing] as a financial source to make some improvements. Maybe you could use a special taxing district.

 

Is there really any effective coordination with Minneapolis on planning for completely co-mingled, adjoining areas, like 44th and 50th & France? From my conversations, Minneapolis officials resort to a lot of wonky mumbo jumbo in suggesting there are “compatible goals,” but here on the Edina side I pick up a lot of exasperation.

I remember when we were thinking of making the improvements on the ramps around (50th & France) the numbers went all the way from $3 million to $14 million depending on what you wanted to do. (Edina City Manager) Scott Neal and I got together with R.T. (Rybak) when he was still mayor and Betsy Hodges (then representing Southwest’s Ward 13 in Minneapolis) at the Edina Grill. We said, “Look, you’ve got all these retailers across the street and all their customers parking over here. And we’re paying for all these improvements.”

What I suggested was maybe we should go to the Legislature and ask for something novel, like a special taxing district where your merchants help pay for the parking on our side of the street that they all use.

What we heard back was, “God! The merchants can barely pay for the assessment on the surface lot behind General Sports!” Which prompted us to say, “Well then, why don’t you sell us those two blocks?”

The idea was: We’ll figure out a formula that would give [Minneapolis] some kind of multiple of your tax base. The school district tax base would stay the way it is, and the county’s getting theirs, whether it’s in Edina or Minneapolis. But these merchants could cut their tax bill by two-thirds or a third by being in Edina.

R.T. was sitting there kind of interested. But Betsy wasn’t.

But it arose out of this idea that if these merchants are going to be assessed they ought be assessed in some fair sort of fashion. The reality though is that while (50th & France) is our downtown, it’s just another neighborhood for Minneapolis, like 50th & Bryant for Minneapolis. It’s just not something they’re paying a lot of attention to.

But our council would be happy to sit down with Minneapolis’ and see how we could make those areas more attractive. By working together. That said, in my experience that sort of thing is more ward-driven than mayor or council driven.

 

Finally, just to fact check a story I heard. Apparently not so long ago the council or the Planning Commission was taking heat from residents over the affordable housing quota on some project, maybe it was the 50th & France development. And you folks were getting the usual hysteria about an “undesirable element” being encouraged to move into the city, as though these would all be meth dealers or something.

Was it your line, in response to another of these complaints: “What exactly are they afraid of? Roaming hordes of dental hygienists?”

[Laughs.] I wish it was. That was a good line. But it was [Edina councilman] Mike Fischer who said it. That sort of thing comes up pretty much every time. You can count on it.

 

  • kayj

    Hovland is quoted as saying: “Density and height, where it’s appropriate, is THE BEST WAY to relieve some of the burden from the single-family homeowner” (emphasis added). He is not correct, for a host of reasons, including that when tax increment financing is used, many (most?) residents will not see any benefit to their city or county taxes for as long as they live in the community (redevelopment districts can last 26 years). Another reason is the cost of providing community services, which can be greater for residential than for other types of development. In our observation over the years, the city looks at the upside of adding population and not the downsides, such as impacts on schools, busier neighborhoods, more emergency calls, etc. These are not the developers’ concerns, but they are our concerns. In our experience, Hovland is aligned with developers. He parrots their lines and advances their aims. The debate over density is often so superficial and objectors are dismissed as NIMBY’s, unenlightened, or afraid of change. City leaders like Hovland have failed to get to know a good chunk of this community and our reasons for expressing concern, skepticism or distaste about the direction development has been taking in Edina. Seems like the same could be said about the reporter, unless he can give equal time to an educated counter perspective.

  • IntegrityAboveAllElse

    “Hovland gets consistently good marks for handling the mechanics of city government and working the town.” This statement is true – if developers are doing the marking. The Edina government is a developer’s dream. Need TIF? Just put “Edina blight” in the proposal (which is an oxymoron, by the way.) Look at public records. There have been several council meetings over the last few years where citizens have had to pack the chambers in order to be heard about development they do not want or about basic processes and plans that should be followed. When city mechanics are working well, residents aren’t forming groups, getting petitions, making signs and sitting in long council meetings – in final attempts to be understood. There have been too many of these meetings lately. Most residents I know support responsible, thoughtful development. If the council took that approach, you could say that the mayor gets good marks for city mechanics…but not until then.

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