Planning Commission approves project at 43rd & Upton

Credit: The building design at 4264 Upton Ave. S. features porcelain tile, brick veneer, stucco, wood laminate accents and balconies with glass railings. Rendering by Momentum Design Group

A divided city Planning Commission approved plans Sept. 8 for a four-story building on the Famous Dave’s site at 4264 Upton Ave. S.

More than 100 pages of public comments poured in to City Hall, most in opposition to the development’s height, according to city staff. Residents also circulated an online petition to oppose the height, netting 395 signatures at press time.

The 55-foot 11-inch building would include ground-floor retail topped by 29 residences. The Planning Commission voted 4-2 to grant a conditional use permit to build above three stories (42 feet) in the commercial zone.

The site would include 50 parking spaces, with 36 underground spaces for residents and 14 retail parking spaces on the ground floor. Vehicle access would involve a single curb cut on Upton Avenue.

At the Planning Commission meeting, developer Clark Gassen noted that he opted for a smaller project, and decided not to buy a property to the north that was included in prior developers’ proposals.

Planning Commissioners voiced split opinions on the project. Commissioner Ben Gisselman said he thinks there is some question about whether the project complies with Linden Hills’ small area plan, and arguably, the city’s comprehensive plan. One of the city’s conditions for building higher requires that the development is not injurious to surrounding property, and Gisselman said he wasn’t convinced of that.

Gisselman’s motion to deny the height was met with applause from some in attendance and voted down 4-2 by fellow commissioners.

City Council Member and Planning Commissioner Lisa Bender countered that city staff had thoroughly described how the proposal meets the legal requirements needed to grant a permit for extra height.

In a report, city staff said the development fits within the scale and character of the surrounding area, citing several buildings on surrounding blocks that stand two-seven stories. The additional height would not increase traffic congestion, staff said, and a setback on the fourth story would allow more access to light and air and reduce shadowing.

When customers come in to Clancey’s Meats and Fish, many ask owner Kristin Tombers about the status of the Famous Dave’s site. She said customers’ reaction to the latest news is uniform.

“I’m not making it up, everybody shakes their head in disbelief,” she said.

Tombers said she feels as though city officials give developers blanket approval for conditional use permits to build taller.

Resident Larry LaVercombe quoted former Council Member Gary Schiff’s 2012 comments on the Linden Corner project previously proposed for 43rd & Upton. Schiff had referred to a conditional use permit to build five stories at 43rd & Upton as an “end run around our zoning code.”

“He called us an engaged community, not a bunch of NIMBYs,” LaVercombe said.

LaVercombe highlighted thousands of neighborhood dollars and volunteer hours spent crafting a small area plan, which was designed to guide future development. Linden Hills’ original plan called for height limits of three stories near spots like 43rd & Upton and 44th & Beard. Shortly before the matter came to a city vote, city staff persuaded Linden Hills’ steering committee to slightly raise that limit to 44 feet to improve the plan’s chance of passage. The neighborhood group agreed, and city officials later struck the numerical limit altogether and adopted a plan that allowed three or four stories, encouraging developers to build shorter than zoning code maximums.

Linden Hills’ small area plan was the focus of a 2014 Freedom of Information Act request by Linden Hills resident Walter Pitt.

“We think people should know specifically what happened,” Pitt said.

The request yielded hundreds of emails related to the small area plan. The emails detail how some Community Planning and Economic Development staff and city Planning Commissioners reacted negatively to Linden Hills’ proposed three-story height limit, in part because they said the limit wouldn’t benefit overall plans to grow the city’s population.