Plans for a major residential-retail development in the 50th & France business district took another step toward reality April 5 when the Edina Planning Commission approved variances for both the height and density of the project.
But the takeaway for many of those bird-dogging the plan was an appearance by Mitch Avery, a Lund Food Holdings’ board member and the Real Estate Committee chairman, who politely admonished the commission for its lack of an up-to-date comprehensive plan for the district — a clear signal that the area’s single largest property owner is watching the Edina Collaborative’s process with keen self-interest.
In a brief interview Avery declined to discuss Lunds & Byerlys’ specific plans for its various properties at 50th & France, instead focusing on the area’s sub-par electrical infrastructure (“brown-outs practically every other day”) and ill-managed traffic flow.
Lunds owns 175,000 square feet in the district. Its supermarket accounts for roughly 32,000 square feet of that. But rumors have been rife for a couple years that Lunds is considering moving and expanding the supermarket, a decision, should it come to pass, that would also dramatically transform the area. Again, Avery would not comment on that.
As for the Collaborative, developers led by Pete Deanovic and Brent Rogers, both Edina residents, presented the commission with a re-worked vision for their project, which aims to update and expand the commercial district on Edina’s border with Minneapolis, adding new housing, shops and pedestrian amenities.
Responding to concerns about the six-story height, the new concept shaves a corner off the western edge of the central residential block, reduces a central skyway to one floor and the number of planned apartments to 110. It also breaks up what had been a rather monolithic, tan, Anywhere USA facade with a series of second story setbacks and a varying color and material scheme.
The project’s size continues to meet resistance from some in the surrounding neighborhood, primarily over the congestion effect of so many new residents and businesses. But the commission’s approval of the requested variances was proof of its belief that all that would be manageable, at least in the end.
How manageable during actual construction is another matter though for existing businesses. Dentist Dr. Heidi Brandenburg and chiropractor David Patterson, both with offices above D’Amico & Sons at 50th & Halifax, expressed serious concerns about patient access during what is likely to be at least a 24-month construction schedule — and possibly as long as 30.
The current surface parking lot behind the Coconut Thai restaurant will go away. The Collaborative will also remove the so-called center parking ramp, located behind Belleson’s and Mozza Mia, eventually replacing it with underground parking for residents above and several dozen stalls for the public.
The development as currently proposed will also expand the existing ramp on the north side of the former 49 1/2 Street, recently renamed Market Street. Yet to be decided, though, is the sequence of those two moves. Either way, parking will be sufficiently less convenient for existing businesses that the commission made a point of requesting language that the developers address the problem.
In a phone conversation, Rogers said his team had a scheduled set of meetings with city officials on the topic.
It was the appearance of Avery, though, that set antennae twitching. If the commission and City Council both sign off on the Collaborative project, with its substantial revision of the 50th & France architectural and density ethos, it seems only logical that the area’s primary land owner would take that as a precedent or guide for the new normal.
Well-known attorney Tom Heffelfinger, a resident at 50th & France, didn’t mince words warning the Commission of exactly that. Namely, if the city approves six stories for the Collaborative it will be on weak legal ground denying the same to the next developer who wants a piece of the new higher-density 50th & France action.
Carey Teague, Edina’s community development director, disagreed, assuring the Commission that every succeeding development would be judged strictly on its own merits and impact to its surroundings.
Also churning in the rumor mill is talk of a residential-retail development for the separately owned Walgreens and Bespoke Salon sites at the intersection of France and Market Street. Likewise, removal of the post office and its adjacent parking lot has been whispered about for years. (The Hooten’s Dry Cleaning building is part of the Collaborative project.)
City Council member Mike Fischer isn’t buying Heffelfinger’s argument.
“He’s wrong. I don’t think he has a point,” Fischer said. “But I do think if we decide six stories is OK for that central core of the district, we have to clearly say why on the record.”
Fischer said until “this minute” he had not heard of chronic electrical issues in the business district and suggested that was an issue Lunds & Byerlys should take up with the power company. He also said the lack of a new comprehensive plan for the district — the city is in the early stages of formulating one — should not impede the Collaborative development.
“Since it was the HRA (Housing and Redevelopment Authority) who went out and solicited developers for these city properties (the central and north parking ramps), it would be kind of bad form on our part if, after all the time and money they’ve spent, we tell them they have to stop and wait until we finish what we’re doing.”
Fischer wouldn’t say how he will vote on the final plan for The Collaborative.
“My thinking kind of ebbs and flows,” he said.
But, generally echoing the Planning Commission, he added, “The project has a lot of great potential for 50th and France. It is the next evolution for the district.”
A greater point of irritation for him, in the context of long-term comprehensive planning, is how to get Minneapolis, on the east side of France Avenue, to step up and match Edina’s level of attention to design and cost of infrastructure, meaning parking facilities and traffic management.
“I was thinking again last night about how we can apply pressure, and I’m still looking for a good idea,” he said. “Let me know if you come up with one.”
Brian Lambert is a resident of Edina, directly adjacent to the 50th & France business district.