Lagoon project moves on up

After a month of delay, Uptown’s literally high-profile Lagoon development sailed through the Minneapolis Planning Commission May 23, the first official blessing for the 12-story condo/100,000-square-foot office project.

The project has generated controversy because the 148-foot-tall condo component would rise 92 feet above the area’s four-story height limit. The $75 million development would also feature a roughly doubled Lagoon Theater, 1300 Lagoon Ave., 16,500 square feet of retail and 760 parking spaces, most of them underground. Together with 112 condo units and what the local newspaper Finance and Commerce describes as "the largest new office project on the drawing boards in the Twin Cities," neighbors say Uptown’s traffic congestion will only worsen.

However, Commissioners voted to rezone the property and grant all other requested approvals – overruling staff objections to the height – though they did attach some conditions.

Commissioners praised the project’s general design, including a public plaza in the middle of the parcel, between the five-story office building facing Fremont Avenue South and the condos, which would be behind the old Walker Library.

Despite the verdict, the approval took four and a half hours as business owners and residents testified for or against the development. Many said pollution and traffic problems are already bad in Uptown, and a more intense development would make them worse; several praised the project for bringing daytime office-worker business to Uptown and said it would boost the city’s tax base and density needed to fuel mass transit.

The action now shifts to the City Council, where the footing might be more treacherous for developers Stuart Ackerberg and Clark Gassen.

In recent weeks, the Lagoon Project has become a political football; it was a focus of the recent 10th Ward DFL City Council endorsing convention to pick a successor to project backer Dan Niziolek. And at last month’s citywide DFL convention, both Mayor R.T. Rybak and his challenger, Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, offered critical comments.

In a statement from Rybak relayed by Senior Policy Aide Erik Takeshita, the mayor said he is opposed to the project’s height and disagrees with the Planning Commission’s position. Takeshita read a quote from Rybak saying, "Uptown is not downtown. I believe increasing the height of the building can change the essential nature of Uptown."

Another influential City Hall player – Gary Schiff (9th Ward), who chairs the Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee, the project’s next step – said he opposed the height and voted against it on the Planning Commission.

During the Commission’s debate, Schiff offered a substitute motion to knock the building’s height down to 10 stories, but it was rejected.

"The building is too tall and doesn’t match the character of the area," Schiff said, adding that he’s worried that approving such a tall project in Uptown would set a precedent for future developments.

The developers have at least one significant ally: Niziolek, who has been a staunch supporter since the concept was unveiled in January. He did not return requests for comment by the Journal’s deadline.

The project needs seven votes on the 13-member Council to proceed; a Rybak veto would raise that number of "yes" votes to nine. Takeshita said the idea of a veto for Rybak is too far off.

Public’s views

The Planning Commission testimony revealed the clash of civic values that Uptown’s busy intersections force.

Neighbors south of the project – already contending with ratcheting side-street traffic levels – did not accept the developers’ studies that cars would flow at "acceptable" levels. CARAG resident Howard Verson told the Commission that more studies should be done.

Linda Schutz, an East Isles resident, noted the rise in Twin Cities air-quality alerts and Uptown’s history of pollution (Lake and Lagoon were made one-ways in the late ’80s to reduce tailpipe emissions from vehicles stuck in congestion). She said the project should be analyzed more thoroughly with better data and software.

In response, developers’ representatives and some Commissioners said the project would create critical mass that would boost mass transit use (the Uptown bus hub sits on the project’s northern border) and use of the Midtown Greenway, a bike corridor (also on the northern border).

Should Uptown stay a low-rise area or be eclipsed by a building reflecting the area’s excitement and inevitable growth?

Aaron Rubenstein, a CARAG resident, testified that the height of the project’s buildings would be "detrimental" to the area, but CARAG neighbor Thatcher Imoboden, who has written a history of the area, told Commissioners that project may be taller but Uptown historically was more intense and the current change should be supported.

Two institutional players – Tim Springer, director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition, and Uptown Association Director Cindy Fitzpatrick – backed the project. Springer praised the developers for including a proposed pedestrian bridge over the subterranean greenway to the plaza. (Trench owner Hennepin County must sign off; developers said negotiations were positive so far.) Springer also spoke positively of a commitment from the transit hub down to the greenway level, a move that needs Metro Transit approval.

Fitzpatrick said Uptown "desperately" needs daytime workers to patronize area businesses.

However, housing lawyer Jack Cann and East Calhoun renter Lisa Greene spoke about the lack of affordable housing within the project (which is not publicly financed) and how it might boost area prices and reduce affordability. Greene rents in Gassen’s Greenhouse development, which is being converted to condos, and is among those protesting the loss of more-affordable housing at that project.

Like some residents, neighborhood groups are also split on the project.

The Lowry Hill East (Wedge) Neighborhood Association, voted to support the project but submitted a letter with issues listed, including height, traffic and pedestrian concerns. The East Isles Residents Association, voted to support the Wedge. However, the East Calhoun and CARAG neighborhoods, just south of the project, voted to recommend that the city reject the plan.

Commissioners’ views

The project’s 19,000-square-foot public plaza seemed worth the developers’ investment, as Planning Commissioners such as Robert LaShomb warmly praised it. LaShomb said the Lagoon development might not fit with area’s traditional style, like the new Walker Art Center addition, but it’s unique and "Š a good project for Uptown."

Commissioner David Motzenbecker epitomized his colleagues’ sentiments, saying "a city must grow," and the project was a good way to do it. However, he shared staff concerns about its Fremont Avenue South frontage that has small windows and little connection to the street. Ackerberg’s staff responded that the focus is on the interior of the project, where the plaza is.

Among other concerns: a too-narrow sidewalk abutting the route where buses enter the Uptown Transit hub. As a condition of Planning Commision approval, it was widened from 5 feet to 8 feet. Commissioners also made approval conditional on Hennepin County OKing the greenway pedestrian bridge.

Ackerberg said he’s pleased with the Commission’s decision and the community’s chance for input but recognizes the project still has a ways to go.

What’s next

Commissioners approved rezoning the property from C2 to C3A, two conditional-use permits, three variances and a site plan review (landscaping and elevation).

Because of the rezoning, the Lagoon project must go before the City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee, then the full Council. Hearing dates were not yet set.

Ackerberg said the project could be delayed if someone appeals the Commission’s decision or by a mayoral veto.

The project was already delayed numerous times before the Planning Commission hearing. Most recently, 35 residents signed a petition asking the city to require an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) for the project. The City Council voted May 13 against requiring an EAW. Before that, an incomplete traffic study postponed action.