Is high-end condo project too tall for Lake Calhoun?

Six-story proposal near Calhoun refectory needs shoreline height waiver

Southwest developer Clark Gassen is solidifying plans to build a luxury six-story, 26-unit condominium building with a 43-space underground parking ramp at 1805 W. Lake St. The East Calhoun lot is currently occupied by the Edgewater Court apartment building and is sinking into the ground.

Gassen said he originally wanted to buy the building and convert it to condos, but surveyors told him the building was structurally unsound and wouldn’t last much longer. So, he said, he decided to redevelop the prime location instead.

Property owners to the immediate south of the lot say they’re ecstatic about the redevelopment plans and promises made by Gassen regarding area maintenance. But the project needs some variances and a conditional-use permit because it is so close to Lake Calhoun’s east shore — and some in the neighborhood are concerned that waiving those rules will set a precedent allowing more high-rise developments near the lake.

The East Calhoun Community Organization (ECCO) will meet Thursday, July 1 at 7 p.m. at St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church, 3450 Irving Ave. S., to vote on a recommendation to the city. Gassen will be there to answer questions and provide project renderings.

SOD-busting

The building’s land is zoned R6, which in zoning-speak allows for an 84-foot-tall building. Gassen’s development won’t be taller than that, but because it is close to Lake Calhoun, stricter city height limits apply.

The Shoreland Overlay District (SOD) applies to most major city lakes and limits building height within 1,000 feet of shore to no more than 35 feet tall or two-and-a-half stories, whichever is lower.

The aptly named Edgewater building is within 600 feet of shore. At four stories, the existing building is already taller than the limit, but it was built before the SOD took effect, according to neighbors. Because Gassen’s is a new development, he needs city permission to exceed the SOD limits.

East Calhoun resident and ECCO board member Gary Farland said the overlay protects the lakeshore from being encircled by high-rises. He says allowing Gassen’s "glass box" could set a precedent that would allow more neighborhood high-rises.

Gassen notes that there are already developments on the lake as tall or taller than what he’s proposing, such as two apartment buildings to the north on the 2800 block of Knox Avenue — including the prominent Calhoun Terrace Apartments — and another on the corner of 31st Street and East Calhoun Parkway.

He said he’s not asking the city to change the zoning, and is only building 26 units even though he could build up to 53.

The project’s immediate neighbors support the project. Nancy Beskar and Mark Margolis said they welcome Gassen’s project and say it’s much better than the 20-story developments proposed for the area in the past.

They added that the low number of units and the ramp would make overflow parking manageable. "This is the most glorious thing to happen on this corner," Margolis said. "We should kiss this guy’s [rear] that it’s only a six-story project."

Project specifics

Gassen’s architect, David Graham, is a principal with Elness, Swenson, Graham Architects, Inc., a firm known for designing St. Louis Park’s Excelsior and Grand development and the new 301 Kenwood Pkwy. development near the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Graham and Gassen said they’re excited to design the "Gateway to Uptown."

He said the building design would put units at street level, making a connection between the development and the public area. Graham said residents would have porches and a new bus shelter, too.

By putting the parking underground, Gassen said he could close off a dangerous alley turn behind the building and replace half of the existing parking lot with greenspace. Beskar said she’s glad something is being done about the alley, adding that it’s impossible to plow in the winter, leaving some motorists stuck in the curve.

Gassen said he’s also agreed to take over maintenance of the weedy park, located on the corner of East Calhoun Parkway and West Lake Street. Margolis said between the city and the Park Board, no one has been in charge of maintenance, so it would be a relief for neighbors for Gassen to take it on.

In the works

Gassen has a purchase agreement to buy the site for $2.6 million and said he’s still isn’t sure what the total project cost will be.

Although he said he has interested buyers already, Gassen said his team hasn’t set the condos’ prices. He would only say that prices are comparable to those at the 301 Kenwood Pkwy., where units sold for close to $1 million.

Otherwise, Gassen is focused on neighborhood support and city approval to keep the project moving forward. He said he’s acquired 300 letters of support from residents and approached only two parties unwilling to give their support.

Although Beskar and Margolis say most residents love the project, Farland disagrees, saying not enough people know about it.

"There are other people with concerns," ECCO President Jeff Farnam said. He thinks Gassen’s project would improve the area — even if you don’t like the modern glass-and-steel design — but recognizes the height concerns.

However, Farnam said he wants to make sure residents judge the project on facts, not neighborhood rumors. He urges residents to attend the July ECCO meeting.

Gassen welcomes questions from residents regarding the project at [email protected]