Neighborhood group's initial discussion with developer raises questions about when the public can be shut out
The early warning signs are there: a proposed Lowry Hill housing development is likely to cause controversy. A handful of residents concerned about the 12-unit development -- which would demolish a landmark Groveland Terrace house -- were locked out of a Dec. 2 neighborhood association committee meeting.
Ed Newman, president of Lowry Hill Residents, Inc. (LHRI), said he locked out residents so board members could focus on developer Bruce Singer's process for his cluster housing development that would demolish the historic Cashman House, 57 Groveland Terrace.
Singer showed a preliminary draft proposal to the board, which has taken no action on it.
Said Newman, "Although I am 150 percent behind public process and making sure everyone has a chance to put their time into it, that first meeting was really about what kind of process is going to be necessary here. It was not appropriate to have people who were not on the committee to be part of that discussion."
Bob Glancy tried to attend the meeting because he loves Groveland Terrace. Glancy, who was locked out, is a former LHRI member and past Lowry Hill resident a Minneapolis historian, Historic Preservation Commission member and Realtor. He said the Cashman House -- also known as the Long House -- was designed and built in 1914 by architect Louis Long, whose family designed that entire block of Groveland.
"Ironically, [Long's] firm was not primarily known for residential designs," Glancy said. "They really specialized in things like the courthouse, the old YMCA downtown, what is now the Minnesota Performing Arts building on 5th and Hennepin, the old public library which used to be on Hennepin and is gone, and the Lumber Exchange and a few other really big buildings downtown."
Heard it through the grapevine Newman was surprised the meeting became a neighborhood flashpoint. "I have no idea how the word even got out that this subcommittee was going to meet an hour before the board meeting," he said. "Not that we were trying to be secretive, but I received several phone calls from people who -- just because they knew the Cashman House was going to be discussed -- had already made up their minds about this and wanted to come to voice their opinions. And I'm thinking, 'This isn't the forum.'"
Glancy said he received a call from a LHRI board member telling him about the meeting. He passed on the information to others he thought might be concerned about the proposed demolition.
One of those people is Dee Montgomery, a 25-year Lowry Hill resident who has helped Glancy research the history of area buildings, including several on Groveland Terrace.
Montgomery said, "We're not pleased to find that meetings are now secret. People very much feel, and reasonably so, that if something major is going on in their neighborhood, it's the responsibility of the neighborhood group to notify nearby neighbors regardless of whether a major decisive vote is taken or it's just an informational meeting."
She said members of LHRI "keep their secrets pretty well, and I think that's one thing that Lisa Goodman was stressed out about."
Seventh Ward Councilmember Goodman attended the regular LHRI board meeting but didn't attempt to attend LHRI's zoning subcommittee meeting.
"Lisa's position was that we should have had an open meeting and just tell everybody who wanted to show up that they couldn't talk," Newman said, admitting that Goodman is "pretty ticked off at me about this, too."
Goodman declined comment for this story.
Open and closed case According to an August 2003 memo by the Minnesota House of Representatives' Research Department, Minnesota's open meeting laws don't pertain to nonprofit corporations such as LHRI.
Neighborhood Revitalization Program Director Bob Miller said that the taxpayer-funded NRP, which in turn funds LHRI, also doesn't require neighborhood boards to hold open meetings.
However, Miller added, "From a public standpoint, the only reasons you should have for closing a meeting down would be because you're discussing a legal issue or a potential legal issue and/or a personnel issue or a grievance which is being heard. Those are areas in which generally there's a reasonableness to closing a meeting, but other than that, there really wouldn't be."
Miller said he wasn't familiar with the specifics of the LHRI meeting and had no opinion of whether closing that particular meeting was appropriate or not.
Close to gone Developer Singer said the Cashman/Long House could survive his addition of 12 duplex-like houses to Groveland Terrace.
"Nothing is black and white when it comes to these things," he said. "You can't say it's impossible, but it comes down to a question of does it work?…Does it fit with the vision of the project? What's the cost-benefit analysis in trying to rehab to make it work with the project?"
However, he said that right now, demolition is likely. "It doesn't seem to be a really close call," he said.
Singer, a 10-year Lowry Hill resident, said he and Eden Prairie architect Keith Waters are close to filing plans with the city. "We wanted to do the neighborhood thing first and get their feedback in case we needed to tweak [the plans] in any way," he said.
He said possible changes might address some concerns -- for example, that the new houses won't face Groveland Terrace.
"We want to have it look like a series of Lowry Hill houses that are street-friendly, pedestrian-friendly and don't turn their backs on the neighborhood," Singer said.
Waters said, "It'll take weeks rather than months to tinker with the design."
The best laid plans? After they've tinkered, Singer and Waters say they'll approach the city's Planning Department and the neighborhood association with new and improved plans.
Ed Kodet, whose firm, Kodet Architectural Group, is a short stroll down Groveland from the proposed development, said he hopes to see improvements when Singer and Waters return. He said their initial proposal "simply isn't well-detailed or well-executed" and that "the architecture that they are presenting is not architecture that is complementary to the context of Lowry Hill."
Waters said he "thought that maybe it could feel like a little piece of a hilltown you might see in Europe."
Kodet dismisses the current design as "basically a contemporary amalgamation of French colonial facades."
He said that can be improved, however, and that he thinks the proposed development is "probably a fairly good use for the site, except for the demolition of the Cashman House."
Said Montgomery, "The feeling that people have in the neighborhood is that there are too many in-fill demolitions and builds right now. It really is scary."
She said her neighbors are keen to learn more about the proposed development, which she dismisses as a "weird idea."
"One thing about loss of historic property is that it happens by creep," Kodet said. "You take one here, you take one there. Pretty soon there's just a sample left."