Church tries to break bread with neighbors while some sue to block its housing plan

Plymouth Congregational Church and the Stevens Square Community Organization (SSCO) are teaming up to host a monthly community dinner, in spite of recent tensions between the two organizations.

Meanwhile, a group of Plymouth’s neighbors, calling themselves Citizens for a Balanced Community, have filed suit in district court against the church, its foundation and the city of Minneapolis trying to block Lydia House, the foundation’s planned supportive-housing development.

The community meals are planned for the second Sunday of each month beginning at 5 p.m. at Plymouth Church, 1900 Nicollet Ave. Volunteers will provide kids activities. The next meal is Feb. 10.

The SSCO board voted in December to co-host the dinner with the church on a six-month trial basis. Board member Lynne Lowder opposed the move because of the Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation’s Lydia House proposal.

The foundation purchased the old LaSalle Convalescent Center, 1920 LaSalle Ave., and plans to convert it to 40 units of supportive housing for recently homeless people. Lydia House will provide supportive services, including job skills and life skills assistance, to people with chemical dependency and mental illness who rent units there.

The project is in the Stevens Square/Loring Heights neighborhood, and a half-block north of the Whittier neighborhood. The Stevens Square Community Organization and the Whittier Alliance are both on record against the plan, saying their neighborhoods have an overconcentration of such facilities.

The Lydia House plan had the support of some in the area, including a group called Whittier Neighbors, and social service providers, who said it would provide needed housing.

The church and its foundation succeeded in lobbying City Hall for the needed permits. In particular, they received approval to violate a city ordinance that requires quarter-mile spacing between supportive- housing programs.

According to the complaint filed by Citizens for a Balanced Community Dec. 28, 18 such facilities lie within a quarter-mile circle of the proposed Lydia House.

"Perversely, this hyper-concentration is an act of discrimination and segregation,"

the complaint said. "If Lydia House were developed at 1920 LaSalle, more than 30 percent of the population within a quarter mile would receive supportive services."

The city Planning Department has disagreed with the analysis, saying there are seven other supportive-housing facilities in the quarter-mile circle. The difference comes primarily from the fact that the city does not count nursing homes or board-and-care facilities — a type of residential facility for people with mental illness or developmental disabilities — in its spacing requirement, a city planner said.

The lawsuit seeks to overturn the city’s conditional use permit.

The foundation has until Jan. 17 to file its response. Both sides say they want the matter decided as quickly as possible.

"It is unfortunate we are distracted from the mission of Lydia House to respond to the complaint," said Tim Keane, attorney for the foundation.

"We certainly hope the cloud of uncertainty that the litigation raised is resolved as quickly as possible."

Keane said that Citizens for a Balanced Community have serious "standing questions" in court. "I don’t think they have demonstrated they are injured by the city’s decision," he said.

The city’s Planning Commission gave Lydia House the go-ahead in spite of the quarter-mile spacing ordinance. It cited the U.S. Fair Housing Act and the need to avoid discriminating against disabled people — including chemically dependent and mentally ill people — who would live in Lydia House.

Mike Freeman, an attorney for the citizens opposed to Lydia House, said the complaint asks the court to find that the Fair Housing Act did not require the city to approve the project.

Neighborhood groups have responded differently to their disputes with the church.

The Whittier Alliance board passed a motion in November that any contact between the Whittier Alliance and the church or its foundation be left to the discretion of the Alliance chair.

Chair Marian Biehn said the motion was a response to a feeling that trust had broken down and the church was misrepresenting neighborhood views on Lydia House.

The majority on the Stevens Square Community Organization board said it wanted to separate Lydia House from other projects where it could collaborate with the church.

The meal is being billed as a way for neighbors to meet each other, make new friends and "linger over coffee while your kids play."

For more information on the meal, call the church at 871-7400 or SSCO at 871-7307.