Lagoon development a no go

Council group spikes Uptown condo/retail plan

The City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee rejected the controversial Lagoon redevelopment project on June 23. This vote comes one month after the city’s Planning Commission voted to approve zoning changes to allow a 13-story condo tower with a five-story office building and other facets. Neighborhood opponents appealed the decision, leading to the June 23 vote.

Councilmembers said the project has many attractive aspects but that the condo building was too tall for an area surrounded by four- and six-story buildings.

The privately funded development would be built in the parking lot behind the Lagoon Theater, 1300 Lagoon Ave. The proposed complex includes 112 condos, the office complex, retail space, a bigger theater, underground parking and a central public plaza.

In May, the Planning Commission approved the plans despite city staff’s recommendation to deny the project. Staff cited the height and the inward-facing nature of the complex away from the street.

At the Commission hearing, Councilmember Gary Schiff (9th Ward) proposed a compromise, reducing the condo building by three stories. However, longtime Uptown developer Stuart Ackerberg said after the Council vote that the project is planned as a whole, and lopping off a few floors would make the concept financially impossible.

Noting that the plan would replace a parking lot and bring in workers to keep Uptown businesses busy during the day, Ackerberg said, "It’s a lose-lose. I think everybody lost."

Despite the rejection, the full Council will vote on the plan July 1, after the Journal’s deadline.

Ackerberg said if his project is defeated at the full Council level, he’d start again and try to rework the site, aiming for a much less intensive development. He acknowledged it would be time-consuming and expensive, but said, "We’ll try. We will keep trying."

Politicians take issue

The controversial project has become a political football. At least three 10th Ward City Council candidates were present at the committee meeting, as was Mayor R.T. Rybak, who spoke out against the project’s height.

Rybak, who praised Ackerberg’s efforts, development track record and many project elements, said the project’s height necessitated his vocal push for a no vote. "No – we should not have a building this tall at this site," he said. "Uptown is not Downtown."

Councilmembers echoing the sentiment included Paul Ostrow (1st Ward), Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) and Schiff.

When asked if the Ackerberg felt the upcoming city elections influenced the committee’s vote, he said, "It’s a big issue. It’s a hot topic. It’s an election year and [the project] seems to be a high profile."

Goodman said her vote against the project is one of the hardest she’s made on the Council because of its potential assets, such as the expanded theater.

However, she said the project would set a precedent for height in the area that could spur other large developments, such as three condo projects planned near Lake Calhoun’s north shore. "My heart says that this project is simply not in the character of the neighborhood," Goodman said.

Technically, the property needed to be rezoned from C2 to C3A to allow a more intensive use, plus receive conditional-use permits for the building height, as well as variances for building setbacks and a site plan review (landscaping and elevation).

Neighbors

At the public hearing preceding the committee vote, neighborhood opponents stated their objections.

"We believe the height is excessive," said CARAG resident Aaron Rubenstein, one of the appellants. He added that residents think the development would "stick out like a sore thumb."

With building proposals multiplying in recent months, CARAG resident Carl Holmquist said there should be an Uptown community plan to guide the area’s development. "I’m very concerned about the ‘build it and they will come’ concept," he said.

Many other residents of the CARAG, East Calhoun and East Isles neighborhoods have voiced opposition to the project through testimony at the committee, e-mails and letters to city officials.

Neighbors had also made issue during the staff’s project review about the potential traffic increase new development would spur.

Goodman noted that an Uptown parking study is under way. Uptown residents are currently helping by counting cars at varying intervals during the day.

Despite the testimony against the project, some residents supported it. CARAG residents Thatcher and Durant Imboden spoke in favor of the project and the jobs the office building would lure to the area. "This project would bring workers to the area, which it lacks," said Thatcher Imboden.

Tim Springer, executive director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition, also spoke in favor, highlighting plans for a new pedestrian bridge over the greenway and a connection from the greenway to the Uptown Transit Hub. Both plans are pending Metro Transit and Hennepin County negotiations.

While residents have conflicting views, so do neighborhood groups. The project sits in the Wedge neighborhood and its neighborhood group, the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association, voted to approve the plans with many conditions. The East Isles neighborhood group voted to support LHENA. CARAG and East Calhoun, south of the project site, voted against the project.