How Steve Minn’s Southwest development dream was derailed

A popular ex-councilmember vowed to work with a neighborhood he liked, toward an affordable-housing goal everyone wanted. How did it end up in rejection and angry words?

To Steve Minn, a developer and former city councilmember, building a two-to-three-story, 44-unit mixed-rate senior apartment complex in the ward he once represented made perfect sense.

The 50th & Ewing intersection in the Fulton neighborhood is on a bus line, there’s a grocery store across the street, and there’s plenty of retail shopping in walking distance. "Market research shows the Southwest Minneapolis population is aging — and they’d rather move within their own neighborhood than to Richfield or Edina," said Minn.

Minn, elected twice from the area, had a base of neighborhood good will. His City Hall experience brought a better grasp of neighborhood politics and personalities than other developers had. Plus, Minn said, he thought he was doing something inherently good — increasing affordable housing in Southwest Minneapolis, where it is relatively rare. "I wanted to do something that I wish would have happened when I was on the Council. I tried to do an affordable housing project here," he said.

Minn was so confident of support that he pledged to follow the neighborhood’s wishes. He said the Fulton Neighborhood Association was a favorite from his time as a councilmember. "Fulton was always one of the most cooperative organizations to work with," he said. "They were forward-thinking. Rather than sticking their heads in the sand when they had issues, they rolled up their sleeves and got to work."

However, Minn’s commitment to FNA may have undone his development dreams. Nearby residents were so persistent in their opposition that, in June, Minn withdrew his project with harsh words before the FNA board ever took a position.

"It became clear to me that this was not about height, density or traffic," Minn said. "This was about doing whatever you can to stop this project. They [the neighbors] don’t want affordability in their neighborhood. They think affordable housing means an Aunt Jemima look-alike walking around the neighborhood with five kids."

He said, they said

Neighbors say affordable housing was never the issue.

"That is absolutely absurd to say we are against affordable housing," said Barbara Harmon, a longtime Fulton resident, active Minn supporter in his two elections and chair of the 50th-and-France Task Force. "We’re talking about nine affordable units out of 44. He just wants to make a lot of money. He did everything he could to make this project appeal to affordable-housing advocates as a means to get more financing."

Harmon said a major sticking point is that Minn’s project violated the 50th-and-France Master Plan. The 1996 document, created by then-councilmember Minn along with residents and businesspeople, is designed to curb business encroachment into the residential area. Harmon believes a 44-unit apartment building at 50th and Ewing is exactly what the master plan worked to avoid.

The proposed development’s density would have required changing the block’s zoning from residential to commercial. Harmon feared that zoning change would allow retail shops to move into the area, with more traffic and cars parking on residential blocks. "What he helped us plan with the Task Force, he now says doesn’t hold anymore," said Harmon. "It’s not fair to change the zoning and increase traffic without our consent. The current zoning has precedence for that reason."

Minn’s public demeanor and style may have something to do with the residents’ dislike of the project. Pat Bogusz, a resident on 51st and Ewing, said Minn didn’t really listen to the residents’ concerns. "Minn dominated the public meetings — he kept interjecting his points while residents were talking," she said. "We never got the chance to fully express how we felt about the project — or what we wanted to do with the site."

Replies Minn, "I tried to do [this project] with neighborhood design involvement if they were willing to work with me. Obviously they weren’t willing to work with me. We had a design charette, and we made 15 different plans. We’ve tried to do it the right way, and I’ve reached my limit."

Bogusz said the different designs avoided the major problems. "They kept showing us drawings and asking for comments on the faade and the design. But we still thought ultimately that a three-story building was too tall for a single-family residential neighborhood," Bogusz said.

Who speaks for Fulton?

Barret Lane, the current councilmember, who has been a quiet observer during discussions, said the immediate neighbors opposed to the project contributed to the deterioration of public dialogue. "The only time I spoke up at the public meetings was when some neighbors tried to discount the opinions of other neighbors who lived farther away, on Drew instead of Ewing. They can’t exclude their neighbors. Everyone has a stake here," said Lane.

Lane said he was present during much of the debate, but said little, in keeping with his hands-off policy on ward projects until a formal proposal reaches his desk. "I know this frustrates people, but it’s a matter of conscience for me," Lane said. "I don’t think it’s responsible to get involved in the early process."

Jeff Schoenbauer is a landscape architect and experienced facilitator who ran the neighborhood meetings.

Speaking as a Fulton resident, Schoenbauer said, "I think developments like Minn’s are inherently positive. Developments like that change the demograhics and increase the vibrancy of the neighborhood. And there’s not too much risk with senior housing."

Schoenbauer said it was unfortunate that Minn pulled his development before a FNA board vote; there, other Fulton views besides those of the immediate neighbors might have been weighed. "I think there’s NIMBY [Not In My Backyard] in every project. I’m a NIMBY. What’s important is that the public process allows for a full discussion. If you bow only to NIMBY, you’ll never be successful," he said.

Schoenbauer finds fault with both sides. "I’m disappointed with the inability to look beyond the personalities. I think that was starting to happen, and that’s how the public process broke down."

FNA president John Finlayson is more upbeat. He believes this process has readied the neighborhood to react and respond to change more quickly.

"If this case serves as an example, it shows that the process works. We had good public notice, and the neighbors showed up and kept coming back. I applaud them for their tenacity and sticking to their guns," said Finlayson.

If not here, where?

Ultimately, Minn was never able to acquire land owned by businesspeople who believed in the 50th-and-France Master Plan. Adam Smith, co-owner of Arezzo Ristorante, 5057 France Ave S., and a residential property on the block, said property owners’ concerns echo neighbors’.

"Where are these cars going to park with a big apartment building? I’m willing to sell, but I’m going to go by what the majority of the community wants. They do not want a huge apartment building," he said.

However, residents say they also want affordable housing. FNA and many respondents to a survey on the Ewing development agreed that the neighborhood should work to increase affordable housing options in Fulton. As Harmon said: "the more affordable housing the better."

But can they get more affordable housing if they won’t accept three-story buildings? Michael Lander, a Minneapolis developer, says no.

"To buy a lot almost anywhere in south Minneapolis and to tear the existing property down to build the same density — there’s no way you could do that; there’d be absolutely no economics to it," said Lander. "You have to increase the density in order to build."