A plan put to the test

Neighbors cite Uptown Small Area Plan in opposing apartments

EAST ISLES — On its face, it’s a debate over building height. To some in the Uptown area, though, it’s much more than that.

They see a proposed apartment building at the northeast edge of Lake Calhoun as the first significant test of the Uptown Small Area Plan.

Residents of East Isles and CARAG cited that plan — the work of neighborhood residents, business owners, developers and city staff over 18 months — in their opposition to the Lake and Knox Apartments. In its most recent incarnation, the building stepped-up from four to six stories, rising about twice as high as the plan’s recommended 35-foot height limit near Lake Calhoun.

That proposal was not final, and no land-use application was submitted to the city as of mid-February. The project team worked closely with neighborhood groups and the city Planning Commission, going back to the drawing board twice to come up with an acceptable proposal.

BKV Group President Jack Boarman, the spokesman for the project, described work on a third version of the project as a game of architectural limbo: How low can the building go?

The answer may not please everyone.

"If the entire … building can not exceed 35 feet, then the project will not work," Boarman said.

CARAG President Aaron Rubenstein said city approval of a six-story building on Lake Calhoun would call into question the integrity of the Uptown Small Area Plan.

"If the city doesn’t follow its own plan on this very first significant test, then I think it’s an indictment of the planning process, of citizen participation and of how development is going to happen in Uptown," Rubenstein said.

While the CARAG Zoning Committee adopted an informal position against the project, Rubenstein said he was speaking for himself, not on behalf of CARAG. The East Isles Residents Association voted against the most recent proposal in February.

The height recommendation in the Uptown Small Area Plan is based on the Shoreland Overlay District extending 1,000 feet from the edge of Lake Calhoun. Under city ordinance, construction within in the overlay district requires a conditional use permit to exceed 35 feet.

The plan refers to the Shoreland Overlay District and states: "To respect the intent of that ordinance, building heights should gradually step down from Irving Avenue (matching the height of the Sons of Norway Building, approximately 55 feet) toward the Lake (35 feet)."

For now, though, the Uptown Small Area Plan remains a policy document. Until a rezoning study is completed later this year, its recommendations do not have the force of zoning code.

Boarman said his team was developing a proposal that was "respectful" of the plan.

The most recent proposal included a variety of apartment sizes ranging from 600 to 1,200 square feet. The tallest part of the building was set back from Lake Street, and the first floor included retail space.

"The [Uptown] Small Area Plan certainly supports higher-density housing plus mixed-use first floor, and that’s what we’re trying to do," he said.

City Councilmember Ralph Remington (10th Ward), who led the Uptown Small Area Plan process, spoke about building within the plan without addressing the Lake and Knox Apartments proposal directly.

"The way to build in that particular area is to come in within the exact parameters that the plan states," Remington said. "If you don’t do that, anything short of that, it’s going to be massive controversy."

Still, he was quick to add that the Uptown Small Area Plan "has built-in flexibility."

"If the plan were rigid and finite, it would never have been approved," he said.