Height debate continues in Linden Hills

Planning Commission votes to strike 44-foot height limit from neighborhood small area plan

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Linden Hills’ effort to limit the height of new development in the neighborhood is clashing with the city’s plan to grow its population, the city Planning Commission decided Dec. 2.

The Planning Commission voted to strike height limits in feet from a proposed small area plan that would guide future development — Linden Hills wants to cap heights at 44 feet (up to four small stories) near certain commercial areas like 43rd & Upton and 44th & Beard. Commissioners raised questions over how the height limit would be enforceable, and whether such limits would hurt the city’s growth.

The Planning Commission does not have the final say — the issue now moves to the Zoning & Planning Committee on Dec. 9, with a final decision by the City Council on Dec. 13. But the vote was a blow to members of a Linden Hills steering committee who spent a year researching and surveying the community.

“The community sees its identity in its suppressed scale,” said Grant Hawthorne, former co-chair of the Linden Hills Neighborhood Council (LHiNC). He said 66 percent of community respondents said they opposed new buildings four stories or higher.

“To have the verdict rejected by the Planning Commission seems a very disappointing result for all the work that was done,” he said.

Planning Commissioner Alissa Luepke-Pier said Linden Hills’ plan would create an inconsistency in terms of sustainable growth.

“All neighborhoods have to accommodate the increased population we’re going to have in Minneapolis,” she said.

LHiNC spent $60,000 to hire a consultant for the small area plan. Building height is one of many issues addressed in the plan. It highlights candidates for historic preservation, suggests options for new parks, and comments on other issues like parking and neighborhood biking.

But building height is the issue that initially prompted the plan, spurred by controversial projects like Linden Corner at 4250 Upton Ave. S.

At a Dec. 3 LHiNC board meeting, one steering committee member pointed out that the plan is only a guide — it wouldn’t stop developers from proposing tall projects, though it could smooth city approval.
“It just raises the bar,” he said.

The Planning Commission’s decision came after an eleventh-hour change to the small area plan. The steering committee and LHiNC Board agreed last month to slightly raise its three-story preference to 44 feet, in an effort to make the plan more palatable to commissioners and improve its chance of passage.

When the height modification still didn’t fly, steering committee members started looking for new paths for agreement.

“The city’s goal of increasing density is a good goal for lots of reasons,” said Jean Johnson, a steering committee member. “But we can’t talk about [density] as synonymous with height.”

Hawthorne also said density doesn’t need to trigger height. He noted that the City Council recently changed the way it calculates maximum residential density, now allowing for smaller apartments and condos citywide. The minimum unit sizes are still much smaller in New York, he said.

Larry LaVercombe, another steering committee member, suggested maintenance of existing zoning as another method to limit heights.

At its Dec. 3 meeting, LHiNC voted to send letters to city officials and respectfully defend the small area plan’s stance on height.

“I felt like they were dismissive of a couple of things we thought hard about for weeks and months,” said Russ Cheatham, LHiNC co-chair. “I feel we need to stand behind the plan.”