Minneapolis Planning Commissioner Lara Norkus-Crampton announced her resignation July 22 in response to what she called the panel’s “complete disregard” of the Uptown Small Area Plan during recent discussions about a development proposed at Lake Street and Knox Avenue.
“It has become apparent to me that the planning department and planning commission are more interested in allowing market forces, rather than rational, thoughtful land-use planning, to dictate land-use decisions,” the ECCO resident and part-time nurse said in a prepared statement.
The Planning Commission voted July 13 to approve the Lake and Knox project, which many saw as the first test of the Uptown plan, a 20-year land-use plan for the area approved by the City Council in February 2008. If built, the development would consist of a five-story apartment building and an attached four-story office and retail complex.
The 56-foot project would stand more than 20 feet above the 35-foot height limit recommended in the Uptown plan. Norkus-Crampton argued that the commission’s approval of the project set a precedent that undermines the plan.
"How do you say ‘yes’ to one 56-foot-high proposal and ‘no’ to others that will follow this new precedent? The rest of the area will simply be in-fill development 56 feet high," Norkus-Crampton said. "This means the carefully crafted [Uptown Small Area Plan] is dead for all practical purposes."
The CARAG, ECCO, East Isles and Lowry Hill East neighborhood groups as well as nine individuals appealed the Planning Commission’s decision on the project July 23 because of the height issue. Nancy Ward, president of the ECCO organization, called the Planning Commission’s actions “shocking” and was sympathetic toward Norkus-Crampton.
“I am sad to see her leaving that body, but I can understand her frustration at trying to bring politics of integrity to a group that is not seeming to act on their own policies,” Ward said.
Commissioners who supported the Lake and Knox development argued at the July 13 meeting that the Uptown Plan was not a rigid set of rules. Commissioner Lauren Huynh, who voted in favor of the project, said it met the “intent” of the Uptown plan by placing a new, mixed-use development with several amenities on a busy commercial corridor. Planning Commission President David Motzenbecker said he couldn’t find a compelling reason to deny the project.
Motzenbecker said in a letter after Norkus-Crampton’s resignation that the commission received roughly 60 letters of support for the Lake and Knox project and about 10 in opposition. He said the project went before the commission three times and developers made changes based on commissioner feedback.
"The iteration that was passed was the shortest of all presented, has many amenities that will be welcomed by the neighborhood and a nearly transparent façade that will disappear behind the tree line," Motzenbecker said.
He said he is as much a believer in the Uptown plan as Norkus-Crampton and the neighborhood organizations, but argued that it contradicts itself in suggesting high-density mixed-use development and height step-downs in the same area.
Though Motzenbecker said he didn’t always agree with Norkus-Crampton’s positions, he respected them. He said he valued her thoughtful questioning and was in sync with her "verve for details and sustainable and green ideas."
City Council Member Ralph Remington (10th Ward), who recommended Norkus-Crampton for the commission, said he was sad to see her go. Serving on a neutral governing body is challenging for some, he said.
“These roles aren’t the best for everybody and not every advocate can adapt,” he said.
Mayoral spokesman Jeremy Hanson said Rybak, who appointed Norkus-Crampton and is a staunch supporter of the Uptown plan, was “disappointed that Lara did not have a good experience” on the commission. The city will now open the position to the public for a couple weeks and Rybak will make another appointment to fill out the term, Hanson said.
Norkus-Crampton, known previously for her community activism on development issues, was serving her second term on the commission. Rybak first appointed her in 2006 and her second term would have expired at the end of the year.
She said in an interview after her announcement that she was grateful for the opportunity and still in disbelief that she was chosen for the role. She pointed to her involvement in the Uptown plan’s development as one of her most significant accomplishments on the commission.
But she said she’s worried the commission and city planners are reducing the plan — which involved hundreds of stakeholders and took more than a year to complete — to 120 pieces of meaningless paper.
“There has to be the political will to make it happen,” she said.
Having also made a brief run for the 10th Ward City Council spot this year, Norkus-Crampton said she plans to stay out of the limelight for a while to concentrate on her job, family and garden. But she said she would still pay attention to development issues and remain an active citizen.
The appeal of the Lake and Knox project will go to the city’s Planning and Zoning Committee, which will make a recommendation to the City Council. The council will vote on the appeal, which the mayor could veto. If that happens, the council could overrule the veto with a two-thirds majority.
Dylan Thomas contributed to this report.