Planning Commission postpones Calhoun Square vote

After hours of discussion, the Minneapolis Planning Commission decided at its Feb. 25 meeting to hold off on approving redevelopment plans for Calhoun Square, the Lake Street & Hennepin Avenue shopping center that has been in limbo for years.

It was the Planning Commission’s second delay of a decision on the project in less than a month. The first came on Feb. 11, when the city needed more time to review the project’s travel demand management plan.

This time, the main issue was whether the development plans provided adequate public amenities, particularly a public gathering space. Commissioners were also concerned about pedestrian and vehicle conflict in a loading dock area on the mall’s south side.

“I think [Calhoun Square is] a great amenity. I think it’s a great place. I go there often,” said Planning Commission Chairman David Motzenbecker. “I respect the position of the developer. I understand the deal with holding costs. I understand your schedule. I understand that you want to get this thing going, but our job is to steward the land uses in the city … this is one of the major corners in the city; this is one of the main spots.”

Minnetonka-based developer Capital Growth Madison Marquette, which manages Calhoun Square for owner BlackRock, a New York-based investment firm, is hoping to start construction on the center as soon as possible, preferably this spring. BlackRock purchased the mall in August for more than $47 million after a stalled condo market caused previous owner Principal Financial Group of Des Moines, Iowa, to scrap city-approved redevelopment plans.

The languishing center has lost numerous tenants in recent years, and some blame that situation for a retail slump in Uptown.

New plans for Calhoun Square include a completely revamped shopping area with more retail space, an outdoor gathering spot along Girard Avenue, widened sidewalks, a parking ramp that will grow by roughly 300 spaces and a 108-unit residential component.

The plans are a mix of existing and new construction with the tallest points being a seven-story, 84-foot building along Lake Street to the east of the mall and a five-story, 62-foot building at Hennepin Avenue & 31st Street.

Wider sidewalks, several indoor and outdoor seating areas, expanded indoor sky lighting, and a mix of tenants that would include a large fitness center are some of the other features in the plan.

Developers requested several conditional-use permits and variances for different aspects of the project. A zoning exception for height was among them.

The commission’s key argument for not approving the project Feb. 25 was that the proposal did not offer enough public amenities as required by the city’s Planned Unit Development Ordinance (PUD) to justify the increased height.

“When we are looking at a PUD and variances, the amenities are important in our consideration,” said Commissioner
Theodore Tucker.

Commissioners agreed with a comment from the Calhoun Area Residents Action Group (CARAG) — the group representing the neighborhood in which the mall is located — that some of the amenities listed in the city’s staff report, such as the renovation and reuse of the center and structured parking facilities, were no more than project features.

“I think there have been some good things done, but I really don’t think there’s been enough,” Motzenbecker said.

A particularly contentious issue was a proposed 40-foot-wide plaza along Girard Avenue, which would be closed off to traffic and delivery vehicles. Commissioners said the space was a step backward from a large, square plaza offered in the plans of Calhoun Square’s previous owners and were concerned that it would be too small, dark, and uninviting.

City Planner Hilary Dvorak, who has worked with the current owners on the proposal, said she had not used the previous plans as a reference point and thought it was unfair for the Commission to do so. But she was confident the Girard plaza would be just as good as the previously approved public space.

“It’s linear vs. square,” she said. “We still have a plaza on the site.”

Development team member Carol Lansing of the law firm Faegre and Benson in Minneapolis said the plaza would be screened from the parking garage, making it more inviting.

“It will be a more attractive space than it was going to be in 2005 and certainly more than it is now,” she said.

Another point of contention was the placement of several loading docks on the south side of the development. Motzenbecker was concerned about their proximity to pedestrian areas.

“I do think, regardless of the traffic counts or things that have been said back and forth that the interaction of pedestrians and vehicles in that area is pretty crazy. … As a health, safety, welfare issue, I don’t think it’s quite there yet,” he said.

Lansing said the docks were needed at the locations to efficiently serve the project and argued that congestion would not be an issue because only delivery vehicles would use the area.

Several area residents and business owners spoke at the Feb. 25 meeting, as did City Council Member Ralph Remington (10th Ward), who thought the project could be better.

“I think the amenities aren’t good enough,” he said. “We have a start. Some of the things are very good, but we need to go little bit further.”

CARAG Zoning Committee Chairman Aaron Rubenstein spoke on behalf of the neighborhood group, which had concerns, but did not approve or disapprove the project. Rubenstein said after the meeting he was surprised and a little disappointed about the outcome.

“I would have liked for the project to be approved, not as it was proposed, but it gives me absolutely no pleasure to see this situation continued,” he said.

But Rubenstein said it probably was a good decision because it will make the developers try a bit harder.

Doug Huemoeller, co-owner and general manager of Kitchen Window in Calhoun Square, saw the commission’s decision as another setback.

“I’m very frustrated with the city,” he said after the meeting. “As you take an overall look at the evolution of the center and the plans, I think these are plans that not only would have worked for the neighborhood, for the city, but also for retail.”

Calhoun Square tenant David Daly, who owns eyewear store Eyedeals, was also at the meeting and anxious for Calhoun Square’s redevelopment to move forward.

“I fear that if this continues to drag on, these owners are going to sell, too, and we’ll be back to more of a black hole,” he told commissioners.

Calhoun Square’s developers have about a month to revise their plans. The Planning Commission will review the proposal again March 31.

“I’m disappointed,” said development team member Jim Larson of Capital Growth Madison Marquette. “But we have to go back to work and see what we can come back with.”

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or jweyer@mnpubs.com.