The biggest thing since Calhoun Square

The concept: A new 12-story condo tower, five-story office complex and park plaza in Uptown

The Uptown Theater marquee may not be Uptown’s most prominent symbol anymore.

If two Southwest developers’ concept becomes a reality, a 12-story condo tower will rise behind the old Walker Library at Lagoon & Hennepin in what is now a big parking lot.

That’s not all. There would also be a five-story 50,000-square-foot office complex, a new 12,000-square-foot green park plaza, an expanded Lagoon Theater, 27,000 square feet of retail and a three-story underground parking ramp.

The two developers are:

Stuart Ackerberg, a longtime Uptown property owner, and Clark Gassen, the head of Financial Freedom Realty, a fast-growing Uptown-based real estate company.

The duo announced their megaconcept at a Lowry Hill East (Wedge) Neighborhood Association meeting Jan. 12; CARAG neighborhood officials also sat in. The two neighborhoods straddle Lake Street between Lyndale and Hennepin avenues.

Attendees expressed appreciation that the developers brought them a concept, not a finished plan, to refine in the next three to four-months. However, they were worried about the project’s height – three times taller than the current four-story zoning limit – and the traffic influx to an already congested area.

Nevertheless, Councilmember Dan Niziolek (10th Ward) joined the developers in touting the project as an area revitalizer that would provide new workers whose spending would help area businesses in slower weekday hours, new residents able to leverage the area’s nearby transit hub and pedestrian bike greenway, and bring in new property taxes for the city’s budget.

"This is very exciting for Uptown. This will really redefine our future," Niziolek said.

Plan specifics

Ackerberg prefaces his description of the project by saying that it’s a work in progress and everything from the square footage to the number of condos is still in discussion and could change.

Still, his excitement is clear. "There is nothing like this that I’ve seen. It’s the coolest project I’ve worked on in my life," he said.

As presented to the neighborhood group, the 2.8-acre development’s signature element would be the 12-story, 90-unit condo tower behind the Old Walker Library at 2901 Hennepin Ave. S. (The developers don’t control buildings such as the old Walker, William’s Pub or the home of Zeno and the recently closed Bilimbi Bay, so the development would not have street frontage at Lagoon & Hennepin.)

Ackerberg said he recognizes the challenges of building at such a height in Uptown, so his architects have worked hard on a modern design that minimizes the visual impact.

At the Jan. 12 presentation, BKV Group partner Bill Baxley said the condo tower is torqued (twisted) to minimize shading on the Midtown Greenway.

Jack Boarman, another BKV Group partner, said a five-story office space would rise behind the Lagoon Theater, 1320 Lagoon Ave., on the site’s eastern side.

Boarman said the office tenant has been determined; their suburban lease expires in July 2006. Ackerberg won’t disclose the tenant, but said they will bring approximately 200 professional jobs to the area.

The office building would feature a second-floor green roof that Uptown pedestrians could see, Boarman said. Ackerberg said the plant- and tree-filled roof is an environmentally friendly way to manage storm water.

The project’s three-level, belowground parking ramp would have approximately 700 parking spaces, up from the surface lot’s 280 spaces. The ramp’s main entrance will be off Girard Avenue South at Lagoon, between the recently closed Bilimbi Bay and a reconfigured Lagoon Theater. There will be ramp exits at Girard, Hennepin and Fremont avenues.

A one-or two-story retail/restaurant strip would connect the condo and office buildings. The developers would also create a 12,000-square-foot greenspace where Girard Avenue now ends at the Lagoon Theater. They say it will be a pedestrian destination.

Ackerberg said Uptown lacks an outdoor public gathering space and public art, which the project hopes to provide.

The developers would also add five theaters to the current Lagoon Theater, with new stadium seats, doubling capacity from 800 seats to about 1,550. Though the theater’s Lagoon Avenue frontage would shrink (to open up the pedestrian plaza), some theaters would be underground. The development would incorporate Bar Abilene’s existing building at 1300 Lagoon Avenue.

Ackerberg and Gassen say the project will increase jobs, daytime traffic and grow the tax base in Uptown, all without using public subsidy for the project. Ackerberg said he wouldn’t comment on the estimated cost for the privately funded project, in part because the building materials aren’t yet defined.

A joint project

Ackerberg and his family have been involved in Uptown’s development for the past 25 years. Gassen’s family is also in real estate, but he’s relatively new to the Uptown market. Still, he’s clearly making his mark, converting many area apartments into condos and opening a high-profile real estate office at Lake & Hennepin.

The project is Ackerberg’s concept – he owns the land and building – and he asked Gassen to be his partner. Gassen said his condo and Southwest real estate experience were the selling points.

"We’re going steady right now," joked Ackerberg of their match. "[Gassen is] committed to really making sure we add value to Uptown."

Both said they’re still deciding on how their partnership will work, but Ackerberg said they are proceeding on a tight timeframe.

Their office tenant’s lease means the project must break ground in May, Ackerberg said – giving them, the neighbors and the city about four months to settle height, traffic and other concerns.

High anxiety

The project needs to be rezoned and get conditional use permits to go above four stories, or 56 feet.

At the Wedge meeting, residents objected to the condo tower’s height.

CARAG resident Alex Wohlerin, owner of Gigi’s Café, 824 W. 36th St., said he felt the development should not go as high as 12 stories, triple the current limit. He noted that neighbors are trying to hold Calhoun Square’s planned expansion to a much lower height.

Meg Tuthill, Wedge resident and co-owner of Tuthill’s Balloon Emporium, 2455 Hennepin Ave. S. said, "I have a huge concern that we’re setting a [height] precedent in the neighborhood."

Senior City Planner Beth Elliot said developers are submitting their project as one multi-element entity, making a precedent harder to establish. If another project lacks those elements – as any different project would – the city has stronger grounds to deny that future height exemption.

Tuthill was skeptical, saying in the past, one exemption invariably leads to others.

Architect Boarman said that while the project would exceed height rules, it is less dense than if the entire site were built up to the existing limits.

Said Ackerberg, "The density we’re adding is in line with the zoning due to the layout."

He added that in a way, it’s a tradeoff; the developers get a taller building (and the premium such condos would fetch), while the city would get the daytime business, public greenspace, increased parking and property taxes. "If there’s ever a place to have density and increased height, it would be at Lake & Hennepin and Lake & Lagoon," he said.

Traffic tussle

But can Lake & Lagoon tolerate more cars?

Neighbors complain that congested arterials increasingly push traffic onto neighborhood streets, and Uptown’s burgeoning bar/restaurant scene has made street parking a nightmare.

Even with the ramp, hundreds of new workers, theatergoers, condo visitors and shoppers could make the problem worse.

Niziolek said the city requires the developers to complete a traffic management plan before any rezoning or permits are approved. Ackerberg and Gassen said they’ve hired Mike Monahan, the city’s former traffic engineer, who is also studying other Lake Street-area traffic situations.

Ackerberg said that more people can mean more traffic, but because workers are there during lower-traffic weekdays, he doesn’t anticipate a problem.

Neighbors are less sure, especially since those workers would be leaving just as customers arrive during evening rush hour.

Boarman noted that while the underground ramp would provide enough new parking, "getting in and out [of the ramp] is an issue."

Ackerberg said they hope to solve that problem by making strategic use of all three ramp exits, especially one on Fremont Avenue, away from Hennepin, and off Lagoon.

Wedge residents noted the current lot’s Fremont entrance is seldom used – but if drivers do flock to Fremont, traffic could more easily back up north over the greenway bridge into the residential neighborhood.

LHENA zoning member Sonja Hayden, the co-owner of Pandora’s Cup, 2516 Hennepin Ave. S., termed Fremont the Wedge’s "quintessential neighborhood street."

Baxley floated the possibility of getting rid of the Fremont bridge to block traffic from the neighborhood, but it’s currently not part of the proposal.

Going up

The greenway is a new amenity for the area, one the developers hope to use and improve. However, it, too, is a complication.

The tower on the greenway’s south would inevitably shade the trench. Ackerberg said that the architects have taken great measures to minimize the condos’ shadow. The building tapers and twists, lessening shadowing while maximizing city and greenway views from condo terraces.

Michael Nelson, the Wedge neighborhood’s representative to the Midtown Greenway Coalition, said the group understood that a taller tower would cast a longer shadow over the greenway, but a wider, squatter development allowed by zoning could be worse.

Also, the blank wall that supports a busway to the Uptown transit hub blocks any interaction between the greenway and Uptown between Fremont and Hennepin. Nelson told residents that the project "was met warmly," by coalition members "especially in lieu of the wall. Some shading could be tolerated if the [Girard-greenway] connection was made, mitigating the wall."

Ackerberg said his team would continue soliciting input from the greenway coalition and area residents. His representatives told the Wedge meeting that they would work with neighborhood boards or a neighborhood task force in any way residents want to – as long it’s done within the next four months.