Urban Village gains momentum and draws concern

First condos in three-block-long Wedge development set to start

The first phase of the three-block-long Urban Village development in the Wedge neighborhood is moving toward construction in September. In late July, the city’s Planning Commission approved variances for the Midtown Lofts condos, which will occupy a block between Bryant and Colfax avenues on 29th Street.

However, the action is drawing neighborhood confusion and concern.

Linda Gowan, who lives one house away on the 2800 block of Aldrich Avenue, said the project -- five years in the making -- is too big and doesn't fit in the neighborhood. While the neighborhood association approved the project changes, she said the immediate neighbors are in the dark.

The neighborhood group's president now says his board's recommendation was rushed, and it must change how it reviews developments.

Project neighbor Dan Haley said the two-to-four-story project is a lot different than the original plan and will dwarf his house. He said he would consider moving once the project is complete.

Project history

The Urban Village plans grew out of a 1998 community charette of more than 200 people, a city Planning Department report said. The findings recommended higher-density housing that "respects scale and architecture of the existing neighborhood buildings."

The Urban Village project will occupy the north side of 29th Avenue from Aldrich to Dupont avenues. The project is divided into three sections, each with a different developing group and all treated as separate developments.

Midtown Lofts, a Lander-Sherman development project, is Urban Village's first phase. It will feature a two-story, 16-unit building on the block's north edge and two four-story L-shaped buildings on the southeast and southwest corners.

The project originally had 52 units but has since been bumped up to a three-building project with 72 condos. Four units would be affordable, with rents between 60 and 80 percent of a household's metro median income (MMI, which averages $54,304 according to the 2002 Census). Seven units are affordable to those making between 80 and 110 percent of MMI. City policy considers housing affordable if people making 60 percent of MMI spend less than 30 percent of their income on rent.

The project missed its fall 1999 start date because it took longer to relocate longtime occupant Sowles Crane Co. The Minneapolis Community Development Agency eventually purchased and cleaned up the land to resell to Lander-Sherman.

Michael Lander, a Midtown Lofts developer, said the city, Hennepin County and the Metropolitan Council kicked in a total of $3 million to buy and clean up the land. He said his construction costs would be approximately $20.9 million.

Design changes

Lander said that since 1998, the plan never had a set design, but a two-to-four-story building height restriction was always part of the deal.

He said market changes and rising land costs caused him to increase the number of units because of rising demand for lower-cost condos.

He said the project size hasn't been significantly altered for six months, and the neighborhood board OKed the current version.

Lander said the major conceptual design changes just now drawing criticism were made in spring 2002. A two-story, 16-unit building on the property's north end was listed in one possible design sketch as a duplex. It included a surface parking lot instead of the current 104 underground parking stalls.

Lander said he's minimized the impact of the north building on neighbors, assuring them that the Lofts are the same scale as the original duplex when viewed from Bryant and Colfax.

Haley is concerned that residents' underground parking doesn’t leave any place for visitors to park in a neighborhood that’s already short on street parking.

Haley also complained that a driveway moved from Colfax to Bryant will threaten bike traffic from nearby ramps to the Midtown Greenway.

On a series of 3-2 votes July 21, the Commission approved numerous conditional use permits and variances.

Some neighbors opposed a variance that narrowed the Bryant Avenue setback from 19 feet to as little as 11 feet on one building and narrowed the Colfax Avenue setback from 16 feet to as little as 9 feet on another. One conditional use permit stated an allowed height increase from two-and-a-half stories to four stories on two buildings. City Planner Lonnie Nichols said the actual height didn't change, but the variance was needed to comply with zoning codes.

He also said the approved set backs do not move the building closer to the property line, but permit the plan's front porches and balconies.

Planning Commission member Michael Hohmann praised the project, saying it would boost economic activity. "I look forward to seeing a lot more [economic growth]," he said.

Planning Commission members Michael Krause and Annie Young voted against the requested variances and conditional use permits.

Krause said he wanted to hear more about how the project's density fit into the Midtown Greenway's design guidelines. He also expressed concern that the project did not have more affordable housing. Lander said that the project is 15 percent affordable -- below the city's current 20 percent standard -- because the lower figure was acceptable in 1998 when the project was born.

City Planner Lonnie Nichols said the project's height has remained consistent. The variance was required because the property carries two zoning designations, and the change would make the height on both consistent.

In addition, he said the project setbacks were sought to justify the development's front porches and balconies but not move the actual building any closer to the street or property line.

The Planning Commission also approved a site plan review, which ensures that properties have taken appropriate traffic, dumpster and greenspace measures, with some conditions.

The site plan conditions included approving a transportation management plan to minimize any new traffic congestion, increased tree canopy and inclusion of bicycle parking.

Neighborhood concern

At its June meeting, the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association (LHENA) recommended that the city approve the project. Lander showed up near the meeting's end with the new plans, pressing for a vote to make the Planning Commission's next meeting.

However, at the July LHENA meeting, board members had expressed frustration about that process. Board members said they felt rushed in their June vote without adequate details.

Michael Trebnick, LHENA vice president and zoning and planning committee chair, said there was confusion about variance details not laid out in June, but ultimately, the LHENA board was happy to learn the project hasn't changed.

Not all neighbors felt the same way.

Neighbors Haley and Gowan said they were both frustrated that there were no discussions between the developer and nearby homeowners about design changes.

Lander said he went through the official neighborhood process, meeting with the LHENA board multiple times, and if some residents chose not to participate, there's not much he can do.

Haley said he works nights and was unable to make LHENA meetings.

At the Planning Commission meeting, LHENA Board President John Dietrich also apologized to upset neighbors for not directly contacting them about Lander's LHENA board presentation.

He said because Lander called the LHENA board right before their June meeting, there wasn't time to give neighbors notice. He said there were also other large topics on the agenda already, so the development didn't get the time and scrutiny it should have.

Dietrich said the rush left board members surprised by how many variances Lander asked the planning commission for.

He said LHENA needs a better process to keep neighbors from feeling disenfranchised and board members from being rushed. "We're committed to making this a better process," Dietrich said.

The city's Nichols said that, in accordance with city protocol, residents within 350 feet of the project were informed 21 days in advance of the changed plan before the Planning Commission meeting. Neighbors Gowan and Haley said they did receive notice from the city -- but only had a few days to absorb all the changes. Dietrich said when a project reaches the city, it's sometimes too late.

After the meeting, Gowan said she planned to talk to a lawyer to consider her options.