Wedge in line for long-awaited rezoning

Plan focuses density at neighborhood’s edges

The land underlying this 1960s apartment building at 26th & Bryant in Lowry Hill East is zoned R6. A planned rezoning would prevent the two-and-a-half-story walkup from being replaced by a building as tall as six stories.

THE WEDGE — A proposed rezoning of Lowry Hill East would erase the remaining patches of the city’s highest-density residential zoning district from the neighborhood’s interior.

Those scattered areas of R6 zoning are a decades-old source of consternation in the neighborhood better known as The Wedge, fueling fears that existing homes could be replaced by out-of-scale condo or apartment buildings whenever market conditions are right. R6 zoning allows for building heights of up to 84 feet, or six stories, without the need for a conditional use permit.

“No one has ever built a building of that size (in the Wedge’s interior), but it’s caused stress and tension in the neighborhood for decades,” said Ward 10 City Council Member Lisa Bender, who lives in The Wedge and introduced the amendment to the city’s zoning code in July.

There are four small islands of R6 zoning in the neighborhood between 24th and 28th streets that would be downzoned to R4 under the plan. Larger swaths of R6 exist north of 24th Street and within a block or two of Hennepin Avenue on the neighborhood’s west side, and the rezoning plan for those areas includes some R5 — which like R6 is considered a “high-density” residential zoning district, although R5 places stricter limits on the size of new buildings.

The existing structures in the areas currently zoned R6 reflect the neighborhood’s mix of single-family homes and duplexes built within a decade or two of 1900 and multi-unit buildings from the middle of the last century.

“The current proposal is really a preservation-focused proposal,” Bender said. “It looks at mostly discouraging the tearing down of the older buildings and keeping what’s there but providing maximum flexibility for how to use those buildings.”

Still, Bender noted during a recent Planning Commission meeting that she’s also felt some “pushback” on the proposal from constituents concerned about placing limits on new apartment construction. Despite the thousands of new units added in recent years, the vacancy rate remains below 3 percent in the Twin Cities, commercial real estate firm Marcus & Millichap reported earlier this year.

“Ninety percent of the people who live in this neighborhood are renters, and so we know we need to make sure there are enough housing options for folks so we aren’t displacing people,” Bender said.

A long time coming

The Wedge rezoning has been a long time coming, and not everyone is satisfied now that it’s finally here.

A plan to rezone the neighborhood in the early 2000s fell apart when a Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association taskforce and city staff each forwarded their own plans. That rezoning study was tabled indefinitely in 2004.

LHENA members revived the rezoning effort in 2013 when, as the effects of the recession faded, redevelopment pressure on the neighborhood rose. A turning point for neighborhood activists was the demolition of a boarding house at 2320 Colfax Ave. S. that some considered historic for its connections to master builder T.P. Healy. The Lander Group’s four-story, 42-unit Motiv Apartments opened on that site earlier this year.

In preparation for the rezoning study, the city’s department of Community Planning and Economic Development first undertook a detailed examination of 325 Wedge properties. The goal was to get a better understanding of how the density and built environment of the neighborhood changed over time, said Principal City Planner Brian Schaffer.

Schaffer’s research uncovered “little to no redevelopment” in the Wedge between about 1974 and very recently. But the Wedge does have more areas with R6 zoning than other neighborhoods that ring downtown — remnants of the mid-century urban renewal period, when city plans targeted the neighborhood for high-density residential development.

Now city policies call for such high-density development to be focused on transportation corridors like the three that form the Wedge’s borders: Hennepin and Lyndale avenues and Lake Street. Schaffer said the current rezoning proposal would bring the Wedge’s zoning in-line with those policies, but some neighborhood residents remained skeptical.

“The R4 (zoning) is so similar to the R6 it doesn’t make much of a difference,” said Sara Romanishan, a LHENA board member.

Tim Dray, who chairs the LHENA Zoning and Planning Committee, said despite “the appearance of a concession from the city,” the rezoning plan wouldn’t stop developers from requesting relief from height restrictions.

“The last few years we’ve seen CPED hand out variances like paper towels,” Dray said. “You need one? You got it.”

But Schaffer said there is a “big difference” between R6 and R4: In R4, which the city considers a medium-density zoning district, the city places a limit on the number of dwelling units per building, and that cap is based on the square-footage of the building’s lot. Those same restrictions don’t apply in high-density R6, allowing for taller buildings with more units.

“In sync”

The Planning Commission Committee of the Whole reviewed the zoning proposal Aug. 4. A 45-day public comment period begins Aug. 15, and the Planning Commission is tentatively scheduled to host a public hearing on the proposal Nov. 1.

On a similar timeline is a separate but related rezoning project that would consolidate two existing pedestrian overlay districts and establish new design standards for developments along the major transportation corridors that form the Wedge’s borders.

Bender said the two rezoning proposals would work “in sync.”

The Wedge rezoning proposal would push more intense, high-density redevelopment to the edges of the neighborhood. There, in the new pedestrian overlay district, new developments will have to abide by proposed design standards that discourage surface parking lots and single-story buildings in favor of two- to four-story buildings.

Introduced by Bender and her Ward 7 colleague, City Council Member Lisa Goodman, the proposal was made in response to two recent developments in the Uptown area: a Wells Fargo on West Lake Street in East Calhoun and a Walgreens in East Isles, just across Hennepin Avenue from the Wedge. Bender described them as “single-story, suburban-style” developments in areas where city policies call for taller, more pedestrian-oriented buildings.

Andrew Degerstrom, president of the East Isles Residents Association, said he was “very excited” about the proposal. The EIRA board voted in March to oppose the Walgreens development and support efforts to rezone the pedestrian overlay district.

“We want to see two to four stories” on Hennepin Avenue, Degerstrom said.

Weigh in

Public comment periods for two Uptown-area rezoning studies open Aug. 15.

— For more information on the Lowry Hill East Rezoning Study, click here.

— For more information on the Hennepin Lyndale Nicollet Lake Pedestrian Oriented Overlay Study, click here.