Kingfield housing project moves forward

Developers of a 42-unit affordable apartment complex for young adults planned for 3700 Nicollet Ave. recently finished navigating a five-month community discussion about the development and hope to submit plans to the city in a few weeks.

Nonprofit organization Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation (PCNF) teamed up with youth service provider YouthLink on the project, called Nicollet Square. The development attracted an outpouring of community attention when it was initially proposed in November, prompting the Kingfield Neighborhood Association (KFNA) to set up a public process to educate the community and give feedback to the developers.

That process ended in April with the KFNA board’s approval of eight variances for the project, which will serve as a recommendation to the Minneapolis Planning Commission. The commission could make a decision on the development as soon as June.

The board also approved a community benefits agreement designed to hold PCNF to its word on
development plans.

Community concerns about crime, parking, building design and numerous other issues surrounding Nicollet Square quieted during the past several months, but some residents remain skeptical about the project and PCNF, which has come under fire in other neighborhoods for similar developments.

PCNF Executive Director Lee Blons said all the organization needs to turn those feelings is time.

“We are committed to being in a relationship with (the community) and that’s part of what the community benefits agreement talks about, is our communication with our neighbors,” she said. “We believe we’ll be able to demonstrate that we’ll be an asset. We’re looking forward to that chance to prove ourselves.”

Nicollet Square will consist of 42 affordable studio apartments for homeless and at-risk young adults age 18–22 and a retail component on the first floor planned to be a coffee shop. YouthLink will be on hand at the complex to offer counseling and supportive services.

The most significant change to the development made during the past five months is to its design and parking. Originally proposed as a contemporary building, plans are now more traditional. The other change is an increase in parking from 18 spaces to 26.

For some residents, that’s not enough.

“It’s actually not much different than what was proposed at the beginning, so we really kind of wondered why so much time was spent in a process that didn’t really resolve very much,” said Ruth Katz, who lives less than a block away from the development site.

Katz, whose career history involves helping school drop-outs, said she also thought the programming was too vague and was concerned about the success of the retail component and the development’s ability to revitalize 37th Street & Nicollet.

“My position has been if they build a successful program, it benefits the young people living there and it benefits the neighborhood,” Katz said. “If they don’t, everybody pays a price.”

Rob Hope, who lives a few blocks away from the project site, said he thought Nicollet Square would be a great addition to a blighted area. He said the project would help maintain diversity in the neighborhood and has the potential to reduce crime.

“People are going to be less likely to commit crimes if given safe, affordable housing,” he said.

David Brauer, president of the KFNA board, said the neighborhood group couldn’t do anything during its public process to alter programming planned for the site. “We can’t review the social service plan,” he said.

But when it came to educating the community about the development and influencing other aspects of the plans, the process was a success, he said.

“I would say it went surprisingly well,” he said. “We really did work overtime to make sure everyone was included in this.”

Tom Parent, chairman of KFNA’s Redevelopment Committee and the guy behind the group’s public process, said community input is the reason for the building’s design and parking changes. Many residents who started out skeptical ended up supporting the development, he said, but he knows others never changed their minds.

“There are still some people who feel this is being forced on them, which is unfortunate,” he said.

Parent said the community benefits agreement was a big step in ensuring that the neighborhood association’s work wasn’t in vain. It lays out background, including the planned number of units and management details and agreement goals such as “to integrate the development and its residents into the existing fabric of the neighborhood.”

How binding the agreement will be has yet to be seen, but Parent isn’t concerned about it.

“You can sort of turn expectations into litigation,” he said. “It has about as much teeth as I feel comfortable putting down.”

PCNF will not need to rezone the Nicollet Square property, the current site of a funeral home. The property could hold upwards of 60 units if it were developed as a traditional apartment or condominium, but the city limits the number of supportive housing units at the site to 32.

PCNF has requested a variance for 10 more units.

The organization is also seeking:

• A conditional use permit (CUP) for supportive housing;

• A variance reducing the setback on 37th Street from 15.5 feet to 11 feet and another reducing the setback on Nicollet Avenue from 22 feet to 6 feet;

• A variance to increase the total amount of allowed commercial space from 2,000 square feet to 2,500 square feet;

• A variance for 19 fewer parking spaces than the 45 required;

• A variance for the vacation of a boulevard easement along Nicollet; and

• A variance to create a family housing property along 37th
Avenue.

If the Planning Commission approves Nicollet Square in June or early July, PCNF plans to start construction next spring and complete the development in spring 2010.

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