A grassroots development

New proposal calls for redevelopment of Linden Hills’ Famous Dave’s lot

Sometimes it takes a village to raise a development.

In no other Minneapolis neighborhood is that more true than in Linden Hills, and Mark Dwyer knows it.

The 44-year-old single dad, commercial property owner and Linden Hills Business Association president has lived in the neighborhood for 17 years and in Southwest for most of his life. So when an opportunity came along to purchase and redevelop what is arguably the epicenter of Linden Hills — the Famous Dave’s lot at 43rd & Upton — he knew it would be the community that decided what was right for the corner, and he wouldn’t want it any other way.  

"Every project I’ve seen where somebody comes from outside the neighborhood and tries to accomplish something, no matter how hard they try, it always seems like it’s forced down," Dwyer said. "And from a neighborhood standpoint, I think we could create a better result."

Dwyer has an agreement with Jon Swenson, who owns Famous Dave’s and the land it’s on, to buy the property and redevelop it. Dwyer also owns the adjacent Edward Jones property, which would be part of the project. The development would not include the Dunn Brothers and Ensemble property.

Dwyer said the arrangement has nothing to do with the performance of Famous Dave’s or Edward Jones — in fact the businesses might be included in the new structure, if it happens. Swenson and Dwyer have no plans firmed up yet.

"He’s got an option [to buy] that goes for another three years now," Swenson said. "I’ve looked at reopening the store in the new location. Everything’s so preliminary. I can’t say one way or the other what’s going to happen with this. Basically the idea is to develop this in a very neighborhood-friendly way that would get a lot of people in the neighborhood involved in the design and development."

The Linden Hills Famous Dave’s opened in 1995 as the chain’s first corporate restaurant. It was built in what used to be a gas station. Developers had approached Swenson before the economy tumbled, and he and Dwyer agreed it was only a matter of time before the market improved and someone else ended up building at the corner.

"In a way the timing is kind of good on something like this," Swenson said. "Construction prices are cheaper right now. It’s not the best time to get tenants, but we’re still two, three years out. [We’re] just trying to better the space."

Dwyer’s proposal is a mixed-use development with residential and retail components and underground parking. The structure would probably have to be multiple stories to be financially feasible, he said, but he’s looking to avoid a "big box" on the lot. 

He recently started reaching out to area residents and business owners to get their thoughts on what tenants might work. Ideas have included a bank, Laundromat, small office, restaurants, green space and others. The corner’s independent businesses and small-town feel are a draw to both residents and visitors, something Dwyer is acutely aware of.

"One of the things that makes us so unique from other Lake Harriet neighborhoods is our village, our business center, our node," Dwyer said. "It’s a gathering place and it’s a place to do commerce."

Neighbors of the property are open to the idea of making over the corner, but they don’t want the area to lose its charm in the shadow of a large development.

"I think people like the charm, the hidden treasure that this [corner] is," said Sara Laitala, manager at Linden Hills Florist, a little shop across the street from Famous Dave’s. 

But she said there’s an upside to development.

"If there’s more residential, then there are more chances for people to see us and come shopping here," Laitala said.

Ardith Morgan, who was recently browsing in the Garden Sampler kitty-corner to the Famous Dave’s property, said she regularly shops and bikes in the area.

"I like little shops like this… I don’t think I’d like to see a high-rise or a real big building there," she said. "The little town feel, I think that’s the charm of the neighborhood."

Dwyer has approached the Linden Hills Community Council (LHiNC) with his idea and the group planned to facilitate a community-input process, much like what was done for the CVS/pharmacy slated to go up soon at Sunnyside & France avenues.

The possibility of development at 43rd & Upton was discussed briefly at the last LHiNC meeting, where members seemed appreciative of Dwyer’s approach.

"I think it’s a positive thing that a developer wants to bring in things that are congruent with the neighborhood," said board member Kathy Urberg.

Dwyer said he’s still looking at finance options, a big hurdle in the current market.

"We want a vital, vital core for a hundred years to come here," Dwyer said. He is in the process of creating a website to post information related to the planned development. It’s at www.ourlindenhills.com. He’s also taking feedback at [email protected].