Five stories and plenty of room for debate

Planning Commission approves controversial project near Lake Calhoun

EAST ISLES — Plans for a mixed-use development near Lake Calhoun advanced in July over objections from area neighborhood groups who said the project was too tall.

The Planning Commission approved plans for the five-story, 56-foot Lake and Knox Apartments and an adjacent four-story office and retail development at its July 13 meeting. The development was expected to go before the City Council Aug. 14.

If built, the mixed-use development at the intersection of West Lake Street and Knox Avenue would rise more than 20 feet above the 35-foot height limit recommended for that area under the Uptown Small Area Plan. For that reason, the CARAG, ECCO and East Isles neighborhood organizations all took official positions against the development.

Still, not all area residents agreed that the Uptown Small Area Plan recommendations were so clear-cut. The letter and the spirit of that planning document, approved by the City Council in February 2008, where debated during public testimony before the Planning Commission.

CARAG Board of Directors President Aaron Rubenstein warned of “very significant, long-term damage” to the Uptown Small Area Plan if its recommendations were ignored in this, its first significant test. Rubenstein, who served on the steering committee that crafted the recommendations over 18 months, said diverging from the plan so soon called into question the integrity of the city planning process.

Language in the plan calls for building heights to step down from 55 feet at Irving Avenue to 35 feet at the edge of Lake Calhoun. The plan takes a cue from the Shoreland Overlay District extending 1,000 feet from the lake, which requires a conditional use permit for development over 35 feet.

While Rubenstein said the plan was “very clear” on that point, another steering committee member saw things differently.

Tim Prinsen, a member of the ECCO Board of Directors, said the development “match[ed] the intent of the Uptown Small Area Plan.”

Prinsen said the Uptown Small Area Plan anticipated redevelopment of the area near the northeast corner of Lake Calhoun, specifically, and included language noting that some new buildings likely would exceed recommended height limits.

Both men read from the same paragraph in the plan, but reached very different conclusions.

The developers behind the Lake and Knox project arrived at a height of five stories — with the fifth story set back six feet from the building edge — only after multiple meetings with neighborhood groups and the Planning Commission. The original proposal called for a six-story, 68-foot structure, said Nick Walton, one of two property owners.

“We went to the neighborhood groups multiple times, and the project changed completely four different times,”
Walton said.

Daniel Oberpriller is co-owner with Walton of CPM Development, which manages rental properties in Linden Hills and near the University of Minnesota. They bought the first property near the Lake and Knox intersection about two years ago, adding the others over a period of about 18 months.

“We saw a real opportunity to assemble this once-in-a-lifetime corner,” Walton said.

Plans for the Lake and Knox Apartments call for 65 units, with a mix of studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments.

“We have smaller units which allow the units on a per month cost basis, therefore, to be more affordable,” he said, adding that rental rates would be “comparable to other new buildings in Uptown.”

Walton’s construction company, Reuter Walton Construction, will be a tenant in the mixed-use office and retail building.

City staff seemed to offer a compromise on the height of the Lake and Knox Apartments in their recommendation to the Planning Commission, suggesting approval of a four-story building with fewer residential units. The Planning Commission instead granted the conditional use permit for a five-story building, and approved the rest of the project almost exactly as it was presented by the developers.

Commissioner Lauren Huynh, who voted with the majority, said the project met the “intent” of the Uptown Small Area Plan by placing a new, mixed-use development on a busy commercial corridor and including amenities like a street-level café and public plaza.

“I believe the design team has made a significant effort to address neighborhood issues,” Huynh said.

Planning Commission Chair David Motzenbecker said small area plans, in general, “are not verbatim language to be set in stone,” adding that he could find no compelling reason to reject the project.

Commissioner Lara Norkus-Crampton disagreed, and with Commissioner Ted Tucker voted to deny the conditional use permit.