Meeting halfway on the Greenway

Developers, community members struggle to find common ground at Vera’s Garden

WHITTIER – Scott Mann and Charles Johnson are well aware of the appeal of Vera’s Garden.

The volunteer-planted garden along the Midtown Greenway transit corridor near Lyndale Avenue was part of the reason they chose the area for their mixed-use development planned for 2833 Lyndale Ave. S.

"We always viewed Vera’s Garden as an asset to the property, and we tried to do something to incorporate the garden into our plan," Johnson said.

Johnson’s Minneapolis-based Turnstone Group and Mann’s Minneapolis-based Integrity Management are the lead companies involved in the construction of a 109-unit, six-story, contemporary apartment and retail development planned to get underway in July at the site.

And though the developers are fond of Vera’s Garden, a section of it will be occupied by their development’s parking ramp, a modification they said is necessary to accommodate the number of cars the city mandates for their project.

About a third of Vera’s Garden, started in 2001 and named after the late grandmother of nearby Vera’s Café owner Wayne Butzer, is on private property; Mann’s and Johnson’s companies now own that land. Hennepin County owns the rest of the property.

The keepers of Vera’s Garden said they always expected development on the private property, but a city-granted setback variance and confusion about where the property line was located resulted in a larger garden reduction than they anticipated.

So, frustrated garden volunteers started urging citizens to express their concerns to elected officials in an attempt to save Vera’s and other green spaces that might end up in similar situations. A video about the issue was even posted on the video-sharing website YouTube.

Mann and Johnson, who said they approached community gardeners about the development more than half a year ago before any designs were proposed, were surprised by the outcry, which came long after the city approved the development last

winter.

The controversy caused Minneapolis City Council Member Robert Lilligren (6th Ward) to set up a public meeting to discuss ways to mitigate the issue.

Mann said it’s too late to make changes to the project, but he intends to help the gardeners keep the area green.

"We’re ready to start construction," he said. "We’re very willing to work with them … but we can’t redesign the building."

Missed signals

CARAG resident Donovan Harmel, 61, dressed in a yellow, short-sleeved shirt and blue jeans, was filthy well before noon on a recent sunny Thursday.

He and Tom Evers, 42, of St. Louis Park, were in Vera’s Garden building a rock wall and moving plants from the top of the garden to the bottom. More than 20 feet of the garden’s upper portion will be erased to make way for the development’s parking ramp, so volunteers have been shifting plants in preparation. Harmel, the garden’s lead volunteer, said many of its 500 types of plants and flowers will be moved to a new space between Emerson and Dupont Avenues.

Harmel said he had been in touch with Mann and others involved in the planned development for many months, but he wasn’t aware of a setback variance allowing them to build 1-1/2 feet from their southern property line instead of the required 15 feet until late May. When he found out, he typed up flyers urging citizens to call the mayor’s office and City Council members about the issue.

The flyers were put in a small plastic container on a post in Vera’s garden for visitors to take.

"I don’t know if there’s anything that can be done about [Vera’s Garden] anymore," Harmel said. "But I want the City Council to know that people value green space and, if they listen to the people, to know better the next time something like this comes up."

Mann and Johnson said the setback plans they shared with Harmel and other community members have been the same from the start. The setback variance was needed to meet parking requirements, they said, and the development would not have been feasible without the extra space.

Marian Biehn, executive director of the Whittier Alliance, said the organization supported the development plans but did not realize how low the property line dipped into the Greenway ridge or what impact the setback variance would have.

"For the most part, I don’t think people realized the variance would take a third of the garden," Biehn said.

Tim Springer, director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition, said his organization learned about the development late in the process and didn’t have time to meaningfully respond to the plans, but he’s hopeful the garden will remain an outstanding feature along the Greenway after the development is built.

"Vera’s Garden is a very important landmark along the Greenway," Springer said. "People just love it."

A favorite spot

H. Design Salon hair stylist Jordan

Iovinella, 26, is one of those people.

He spent a recent work break on a bench at the garden and said he goes to the same spot a couple times a week, but he never noticed the wooden stakes in front of it that mark the property line. When construction begins, the bench will have to move and the shady trees behind it will be leveled.

"I really like this bench," he said. "I’m a creature of habit."

Iovinella is among many regular users of Vera’s Garden who are sad to see any part of it go. On any given day, Greenway cyclists, local green thumbs and others visit the garden to admire the flowers and walk the trails.

Husband-and-wife business partners Susan Happ, 49, and Karl Schweikart, 55, often travel through the garden when walking to and from their office on the other side of Lyndale Avenue.

"It’s always a highlight of our walk," Happ said. "This is one of the things that makes the community special around here."

Area resident Darryl Johnson, 67, cruises his wheelchair down the Greenway to Vera’s Garden to read on nice days. He was paging through "I’ll Be Seeing You" by Mary Higgins Clark at the edge of the garden on an early June weekday.

"The garden is really nice the way it is," he said after hearing about the development plans.

But as sad as it might be for some to see a section of the garden disappear, part of the goal of the Greenway is to spur development, said John Tripp of the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority.

Working it out

Mann and Johnson said their development would fuse with Vera’s Garden and incorporate steps from a promenade down to the Greenway.

They also plan to provide a shed for garden tools and a water supply outlet. The developers intend to help move plants from the construction zone or pay for new plants to be used at Vera’s Garden or the other garden site, Mann said.

The apartment complex, which is planned to include roughly 7,500 square feet of retail, will replace a dilapidated shed above the garden. Both the developers and Harmel said vagrants frequent the structure. Beer cans sometimes littler upper sections of the garden.

"All of that is going to go away," Johnson said.

He and Mann are confident their building will be more of an amenity in the community than a disturbance.

Lilligren, who said he has heard from community members on both sides of the issue, planned to host a meeting to discuss concerns and resolve problems earlier this month.

"We want to settle this earlier rather than later," he said. "Clearly, there were some misunderstandings."

For more information about Vera’s Garden, visit www.verasgarden.com.

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected]