Council vote may mean shorter Lagoon project

On July 1, the City Council surprised many by voting 9-4 to approve the proposed Lagoon redevelopment, but restricted the condo building height to 10 stories, instead of the proposed 13.

Developer Stuart Ackerberg has partnered with Financial Freedom’s Clark Gassen on the project. Ackerberg promptly started work reconfiguring the project, he said. Facets such as the greenway amenities and public plaza would remain. The new design should be ready by mid- to late July, after the Journal’s deadline.

Southwest Councilmembers voting to approve the deal were Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward), Robert Lilligren (8th Ward), Dan Niziolek (10th Ward, where the project is located) and Scott Benson (11th Ward). They were joined by Don Samuels (3rd Ward), Barbara Johnson (4th Ward), Natalie Johnson Lee (5th Ward), Gary Schiff (9th Ward) and Sandra Colvin Roy (12th Ward).

Councilmembers Paul Ostrow (1st Ward), Paul Zerby (2nd Ward), Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) and Barret Lane (13th Ward) voted no.

The mixed-use development, 1320 Lagoon Ave., has gone through its ups and downs. The Planning Commission approved the 13-story configuration (with conditions) in May; the city’s Zoning and Planning Committee rejected it in June, and the City Council approved a modified plan.

The vote sends the developers back to the drawing board. The development is slated for the parking lot behind the Lagoon Theater.

As first proposed, the building would have included a 112-unit, 13-story condo building, a five-story office complex, a public plaza along with entertainment and retail space, expansion of the Lagoon Theater and two large parking structures, one of which would be underground.

(The building had 12 floors, but because it has an extra-tall first floor, the city counted it as 13 stories.)

In addition, the development had Midtown Greenway amenities, including a pedestrian bridge and connection to the greenway trench, pending negotiations with Hennepin County and Metro Transit.

Niziolek said the debate was about both height and jobs. The focus on building height had drawn attention away from the jobs it would generate, he said. The development would add workers, support daytime businesses and make Uptown a more vibrant place instead of a bedroom community.

"Housing is what is driving the market," he said. "We are losing our jobs."

Benson said the three-story reduction, nearly 25 percent of the residential tower, was a significant cut. "Try taking a 25 percent cut in salary," he said.

Zimmermann called the development "a signature building." It would replace a parking lot heat island with a building with a green roof and improved Midtown Greenway connections, he said. The Council action was "a reasonable accommodation" for the Uptown area that would not set a precedent for lakeside developments.

Lilligren called it a compromise leaving no side completely satisfied.

Goodman noted that the Council did not approve a compromise but an alternative – a compromise is where there is mutual agreement, she said. The Lagoon was a case where a developer was driving the city’s planning decisions. The vote would make 122 feet (the 110-foot building plus the 10-foot parapet) the new Uptown standard.

Johnson said the tallest building in her North Minneapolis district was six stories. "We’d take it," she said of the Lagoon project.

Mayor R.T. Rybak said the city was dealing from a position of strength and could have done more to lower the building height. He said it wasn’t the last debate about height in the Uptown area and said the city didn’t need to "negotiate from our knees."

"It is an improvement. It is not as far as we could have gone," he said in an interview. "I think we could have driven a harder bargain. It could have been a couple of stories shorter, which would have set less of a precedent for more high-rises in the area."

The nine votes would be just enough to override a mayoral veto.

What next?

Until the Council vote, a redesign seemed impossible. Ackerberg repeatedly told city leaders he couldn’t reduce the condo building’s height and still have a financially feasible development.

At the May Planning Commission hearing, Schiff proposed a height reduction to 10 stories. Ackerberg stood firm on his unwillingness to change and repeated it at the Zoning and Planning Committee.

In the end, the Council approved Schiff’s original proposal.

Typically in condo projects, units higher up command a premium. Ackerberg said of the redesign, "We need to make up for those lost units somewhere else on the site," he said, adding that he’s also reworking the east office building.

Ackerberg said the prospective office tenant Collet McVoy, whose relocation needs set the project’s quick time table, is still part of the project, despite the delays and changes.

Many residents petitioned the city about height and traffic congestion issues. Opponents filed three appeals of Planning Commission decisions. Still, people on both sides of the issue say they’re not prepared to count the Council’s action as a win.

"I consider it to be a very limited victory," said CARAG resident Aaron Rubenstein, one of the appellants opposed to the building’s height. "Ten stories is still better than 13."

Ackerberg called the Council vote disappointing for everyone. Lopping off the 30 feet isn’t going to make much of a height difference but would compromises the design. "It’s like taking a Picasso and chopping off the head," he said.