Demolition derby

In Lowry Hill, two developers take different paths on plans to tear down mansions

This is a tale of two developers.

The first, Bruce Singer, owns property in Lowry Hill. On his property sits an old house that, if knocked down, would make room for million-dollar duplexes he’d like to build.

The second, John McCarty, also owns property in Lowry Hill. His property also has an inconvenient mansion that, if bulldozed, would let him build new condos.

The city’s Planning Commission rejected McCarty’s proposed development in December – on the same day it slapped its seal of approval on Singer’s project.

The most significant difference between the two developers might be Singer’s willingness to compromise.

Essential character

Many neighbors were horrified when Singer first shared his plan to build 12 duplexes among Groveland Terrace’s big and beautiful mansions. He was planning to knock down the landmark Cashman House (also known as the Long House) at 57 Groveland Terrace.

Architect Louis Long designed and built the house in 1914; his family designed that entire block of Groveland. Long was also responsible for the Lumber Exchange and the Shubert Theater, among other famous downtown buildings.

McCarty’s 1900 Colfax Ave. S. mansion has no historical name. Now divided into seven apartments, the 97-year-old house is not architecturally noteworthy, says Bob Glancy, who sits on the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. However, like the Cashman/Long House, the Colfax structure became a rallying point for neighbors concerned about losing a chunk of their bricks-and-mortar past.

That Singer and McCarty want to knock down their respective buildings is very much out in the open. Singer has relented; McCarty has not.

McCarty would build a four-story, eight-condo project at 1900 Colfax and an adjacent vacant lot to the south. It would quadruple the size of the 7,000-square-foot house that’s there now.

He said he has lost $30,000 in each of the two years he’s owned the Colfax house and the vacant lot.

"Economically, the [existing] building doesn’t work," he said. "We did an extensive study on converting that building into condominiums, and the truth is we just couldn’t do it. It didn’t make any economic sense. The thing that’s really making economic sense is this proposal that we think is really wonderful."

McCarty said that "influential" neighbors oppose his proposal; Lowry Hill Neighborhood, Inc. President Ed Newman, who lives across the street, testified against it at the Dec. 7 Planning Commission meeting, as did prominent Realtor Jimmy Fogel.

Another opponent is Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward).

"It’s ugly," Goodman told a Lowry Hill neighborhood group meeting in early January.

In testimony before the Planning Commission, Goodman said "The essential character of this neighborhood is in this houseŠunder the zoning, they could convert this house into four condominiums – which has been done gracefully and economically, effectively throughout Lowry Hill – and build four new units right next door."

Goodman met with McCarty in mid-January to discuss their differences, but the developer said she didn’t budge from her opposition. He also hasn’t budged from his position – but his style of interaction with Lowry Hill is evolving.

A different egg

McCarty has appealed the Planning Commission’s rejection of his plan, which the City Council will hear Thursday, Feb. 3. He has agreed to meet with neighborhood residents three times before then.

Said McCarty, "I’m hoping that by working through this process with the neighborhood, we can make an even better project. I’m hopeful that everyone will be happy: the Councilperson, the neighborhood and the developer."

He declined to say whether he’s willing to keep the existing Colfax Avenue building.

McCarty said he’s looking forward to his upcoming meetings with Newman and other Lowry Hill neighbors, and he’s confident that together they’ll be able to make his development better.

"I’m committed to working with the neighborhood," he said.

Neighbors remain suspicious. Newman said McCarty is trying to present himself as someone concerned with neighbors’ concerns but believes that there’s a bit of acting going on.

"He’s trying to cover his bases and say, ‘Gee, I thought I took care of all of your concerns. Why don’t we meet again and talk about what those are – as long as you understand that tearing down that building is the basis for that meeting."

Added Newman, "I’ve challenged Mr. McCarty to have an approach that’s much more open to changing his plans to meet neighborhood concerns. I don’t think he wants to go there."

At their January public meeting, the Lowry Hill neighborhood board discussed McCarty’s project at length. Several members suggested the developer had designed his project not to need any zoning code variances. Such code exceptions require City Council or Planning Commission approval – and neighborhood input.

Neighborhood groups provide their opinions to both government bodies, who often hear their voices even when there are no variances involved. Case in point: John McCarty’s proposal. About 50 neighbors signed a letter opposing his plan.

McCarty said he did tell his architects to design the project to be variance-free.

"Our project didn’t have any variances whatsoever. No side-yard setbacks, no height variances. Basically, when we designed the proposal, we tried to use the highest quality materials within the zoning guidelines," he said.

However, because McCarty wants more than five units on the site, the Planning Commission or City Council must say OK. The city’s planning staff recommended approval; however, the Planning Commission said no on a 3-2 vote, with three members absent.

The minutes of the Commission’s Dec. 7 deliberations stated that the development is not in compliance with the city’s comprehensive plan because it does not contribute to the area’s historic character and does not promote preservation.

McCarty said he’s confident his development would be good for the neighborhood and the city. If it’s approved and built, the city’s tax base will be increased by about $4.3 million, he said.

Another plus, he said, is that his proposal includes underground parking for 15-18 cars.

"In our opinion, the block could use some help. There are some properties that aren’t the greatest, and we think that we can definitely help shore up that corner," McCarty said.

Given the planning staff’s positive recommendation and the Planning Commission’s plurality (nonmajority) vote, McCarty might be expected to have a case in front of the City Council.

However, Goodman’s opposition represents a high hurdle. More than a few developers say Councilmembers defer to the member whose ward contains the project (expecting the same treatment in return, of course).

Councilmembers counter that they can’t act arbitrarily in executing their duties or the city could lose if a developer contests their rejection in court. Goodman herself noted that by testifying before the Planning Commission she "potentially risk[ed] my ability to be able to be impartial" when the Council hears the appeal.

Should City Hall reject his plan, McCarty sounds likely to continue the battle. "That’s what the courts are for," he said.

The alternative

From over on Groveland Terrace, Singer said his advice on how to get a proposal approved is to really listen to neighbors and elected officials.

"I think, in also watching the one that’s going on [on Colfax Avenue], you have to get in early with the neighborhood before you have plans really set in stone," he said. "You have to come in and get feedback early on and save yourself a lot of time. Get their input, try to respond and stay responsive as much as you can."

Singer isn’t tearing down the Cashman House; in fact, he wants to expand it in the back while not altering its appearance from the street.

Instead of the 12 condos he would have built had Cashman come crashing down, Singer is now content to build eight units on four lots.

"You have to be creative about [compromising]. In our case, we’re going to have fewer units but they’re going to be more expensive," he said.

The eight units will sell for between $1 million and $1.5 million each. He said he also reduced the units’ heights so that none is taller than the Cashman House.

Newman said Singer’s approved plan is "dramatically different" than the original one. "Bruce was exceptionally cooperative," he said.

Larry Thomas, an attorney on the Lowry Hill board, agrees.

"The board’s very pleased with Bruce; we don’t have an unkind thing to say about his work with the neighborhood association and neighbors over the many months. He’s also my neighbor, so maybe I’m biased. He did a great job," Thomas said. "Now the 1900 Colfax building, that’s a different egg."