Pricey tree houses

Developer plans 20 one-million-dollar homes on Bryn Mawr’s Anwatin Woods

While development in Whittier, Lyndale and Uptown has proceeded at a rapid pace, neighborhoods such as Bryn Mawr have generally been exempt.

That is, until six months ago when Rich Ragatz, principal owner of Epic Development, bought the Anwatin Woods, an acre and a half of wooded land, plus several lots bordering the site, as well as two homes at 17 Xerxes Ave. S. and 2919 Chestnut Ave. W.

Ragatz wants to build 20 million-dollar single-family homes on the site: 11 on Xerxes, one on Washburn Avenue South, and eight on Vincent Avenue South. The land has a view of the downtown skyline, and borders Theodore Wirth Park and property owned by Anwatin Middle School, 256 Upton Ave. S.

Ragatz, an Edina native and current Cedar-Isles-Dean resident, did stints in Chicago and Portland, Ore., before returning to Minnesota to start Epic Development just over two years ago.

He is currently building 10 developments in towns such as Chanhassen, Eden Prairie, Chaska and Eagan. This is his first try in Minneapolis.

The new Bryn Mawr homes would be built on 40-by-165-foot lots (about 30 feet deeper than standard), Ragatz says. The homes will be between 3,000 and 4,500 square feet — at least double a typical Bryn Mawr home.

One question Ragatz faces is whether the city will allow such big houses on the narrow lots. The land is zoned R-1, a single-family classification that requires structures fill less than 60 percent of property. Also, impervious surfaces — house, driveway and sidewalk — must cover 75 percent or less of the lot.

R-1 limits also housing height to two-and-a-half stories — the height of Ragatz’s current designs — or 35 feet. If the restrictions become an issue, Ragatz could ask the city for a variance (exception) to the code.

Ragatz earlier considered a proposal to build three large townhouses with six units each, rather than the 20 homes. However, that would require upgrading the R-1 zoning to R-3. Ragatz said he was not sure the Bryn Mawr Neighborhood Association (BMNA), the Minneapolis Planning Commission or the Minneapolis City Council would have approved it.

"Even if I had neighborhood support for clustering the development, it is uncertain that it would pass through the city organizations because it is feared that it might set a bad precedent for future development in the city," Ragatz said. "You never know for sure, but I am reasonably sure that I can get the City Council to approve my plan for single-family homes."

Doug Kress, an aide to 7th Ward City Councilmember Lisa Goodman, said that because Ragatz’s 20 homes would be in a planned development, the Planning Commission would have to review his site plan. The Council would hear any appeals of the Planning Commission’s decision.

Goodman, the area’s Councilmember, is taking a wait-and-see attitude on the project, Kress said. Some Councilmembers refrain from stating opinions before a Council vote because their decisions are supposed to be based on facts presented at a public meeting. Stating an early opinion could increase legal liability, they say.

Kress said Goodman would remain neutral until a Council vote.

Ragatz has had several meetings in the Bryn Mawr community regarding his project. At three of the meetings, over 100 residents attended to express opposition to his plan.

"I can understand where the neighborhood is coming from, Ragatz said. "They are a very organized, passionate group and they want what’s best for the neighborhood."

Asked if they put him on the hot seat, he said, "Yes."

According to BMNA President Kevin Thompson, most residents oppose the development because they want the area to remain green space.

"The lot has always been wooded and undeveloped," Thompson said. "There is not even one no trespassing sign upon it, and because of that, people in the neighborhood use it for hiking and walking their dogs. They did not realize that it was private property."

Kress said another issue is how such homes fit into the neighborhood, an issue similar to other parts of Goodman’s ward, which includes Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles.

Ragatz’s preliminary home designs have a suburban look, with garages are prominently featured in front.

"A lot of people talk about what happens when they built ultra-modern homes in an established neighborhood," Kress said. "Sometimes they stick out like a sore thumb."

Kress added, "Ragatz has gone to the community several times, I give him a lot of credit for that. It’s hard to do design by committee in any project that you want to move forward with."

Thompson said many Bryn Mawr residents also worry that 20 new million-dollar homes will significantly raise their property taxes.

Kress said that concern is legitimate. While acknowledging that neighbors will benefit when they sell their home, it may be a challenge to pay annual property taxes, especially for senior citizens on fixed incomes.

For Ragatz, the question is whether the homes can fetch $1 million each.

Thompson said Ragatz faces a key economic hurdle: several of the Vincent Avenue properties have as much as 25 feet of construction debris beneath the surface dirt. The debris is from a bridge the city tore down many years ago and dumped there with a former owner’s permission.

"Without cleaning it up first, the lots are currently undevelopable," Thompson said. "Ragatz doesn’t know yet what the cost of remediation will be."

Ragatz is unworried. He said not all the Vincent lots have debris, and that the Minnesota Pollution Agency stated that the site does not contain hazardous waste that would be costly to remove.

"Whatever we build there may require pilings," Ragatz said. "We would have something that fastens on to the stable ground below and connect it to the corners of the foundation to keep the house in place."

Ragatz is currently completing the required paperwork for a city hearing on his proposal. No date has been set. Kress suggested that there might still be a lot of back-and-forth between Ragatz and the city before the developer can break ground.