Council rejects Linden Hills housing plan; developer will try again

Though the City Council bulldozed Michael Lander’s rezoning proposal on April 16, the developer says his fight for affordable housing in upscale Linden Hills isn’t over.

"There needs to be a better resolution of this than the behind-closed-doors kind of ramrod approach that Barret Lane took," Lander said.

Councilmember Barret Lane, whose 13th Ward includes Linden Hills, opposed the plan at the Council’s April 16 meeting. Lane wrote a letter to his fellow Councilmembers, urging them to reject the request to upzone the property at 4251 Vincent Ave. from a R-1 single-family residential designation to a R-3 multiple-unit zoning. The Council voted 11-2 against Lander.

Lane wrote, "I have reviewed the record…the application and the many letters from residents on this request. The substantial majority of public comments received on this matter opposed the project. Based on my review of this matter, I agree with [the city’s Planning Division] staff’s analysis and conclusion."

Lander planned to build an 1,800-square-foot single-family dwelling on the property in addition to the existing 1,200-square-foot house. He also would have built two garages, including one with a 432-square-foot efficiency apartment above it. He would live in the new house and rent the other units at affordable rates.

He touted the plan as a unique affordable housing strategy.

"When I pick up the morning paper, one of the regular themes over the last year has been the city is broke; it doesn’t have money for lots and lots of things, between the libraries and so forth," Lander said. "I’ve read that for a year now. And I’ve shown up at City Hall with $500,000 of tax base and two affordable housing units, all done privately, saying ‘Guys, I’m here to help. I’ve been reading you’re just broke and you need affordable housing. Here you are. I care.’"

The Linden Hills Neighborhood Council approved Lander’s plan in January, but some neighbors objected, saying it could increase density and area parking problems.

Vincent Avenue resident Niel Ritchie, who rallied residents to write letters and sign petitions against the Lander proposal, criticized the project because Lander would not guarantee affordable housing beyond three years. Ritchie said the developer’s "not building affordable housing. He’s building a new home for himself with some rental property."

Said Lander, "There’s been lots of personal attacks against me. As being dishonest, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and this is clearly not our agenda. ‘No rich developer like you would want to live in a place like that. This is clearly a scam you’re doing.’ I’ve been really appalled by the level of personal attacks."

Next-door neighbor Linda Koutsky said she hadn’t heard personal attacks leveled against Lander, though she did admit, "Everyone has said it feels like a greedy developer is coming in."

(Koutsky does the Lunchtime Tourist column for Skyway News, which is owned by the Southwest Journal’s publisher.)

Without specifying details, Lander said he would refine his plan. After laying a firmer foundation of community support, he plans to submit the new version to the neighborhood group, as well as the city’s Planning Commission (which approved his proposal), Planning Division staff (which recommended denial) and eventually the City Council.

He said the project has morphed from a purely personal one into a political undertaking.

"Barret Lane has made it political with his maneuvering," he said. "Because it was a personal project, we didn’t put quite the same oomph that we do in our professional work, really building coalitions and that kind of thing."

Lander complained that Lane "refused to meet with me despite numerous requests for a meeting. I’ve never once talked directly with Barret Lane, which is interesting. He is working fairly diligently to stop the project."

According to Lane, "We do not meet separately, as a matter of policy, in the 13th Ward, with people who are involved in zoning disputes. Zoning disputes are quasi-judicial in nature, and the Councilmember in the Council will eventually act as a judge. We’ve been advised by the City Attorney’s office — and it’s certainly my inclination anyway — to avoid ex parte communication, that is, meeting with one side and then meeting with the other."

Lander termed the rebuff "frustrating and maddening," adding, "It isn’t really about the specific design [of the proposed project] or even the principles of ‘Do we need to densify our cores?’ or all these kinds of lofty things; it’s ‘the neighbors don’t want it.’ It’s the lowest level of NIMBYism."