Height a concern in 44th & France plans

Developer Ted Carlson is proposing a five-story, 64-unit residential building

The 44th & France intersection on the border of Minneapolis and Edina. Photo by Brian Lambert

If not the full-scale, transformative and very expensive makeover consultants have envisioned for the 44th & France business district, the likelihood and size of one particular development at the intersection may well be decided in the next month.

For the moment, developer Ted Carlson, who has purchase agreements for the Edina Cleaners and two adjacent residential properties to the west on Sunnyside Road is sticking with his pitch for a five-story, 64-unit complex. It’s a plan Carlson is sweetening with promises to bury overhead power lines and improve the pedestrian experience on his dime. He also says he’s ready to break ground, promising a 10-month construction schedule.

Carlson’s immediate problem, though, is that a significant cadre of the neighborhood’s residents — an unusual number of whom seem to have experience in litigation and journalism — continue to be resistant, perhaps highly resistant, to that five-story height proposition. It’s a face-off familiar to Linden Hills and 50th & France residents, who have recently gone through with developments in their areas.

The city of Edina hosted a public meeting in mid-August at Edina Morningside Community Church featuring hired consultants from Bob Close Design walking 80 to 100 residents through ideas for the full makeover. Those ideas include converting Sunnyside Avenue into a pedestrian (mainly) promenade, or a “woonerf,” from roughly a block west of France Avenue to the Sunnyside Nursery on the Minneapolis side of France.

A second public meeting is currently planned for Oct. 16 at the same location.

Among several basic questions are these:

— If the Small Area Plan (SAP) now being drafted for 44th & France limits development to a maximum of three or two stories, does that make development of the dry cleaners site financially impractical for Carlson?

— Are neighborhood residents content with the status quo if the SAP dilutes the enthusiasm of developers to commit to the area, meaning possibly years before plans such as those offered up by the city’s consultants: widened sidewalks, landscaping, woonerfs and — at long, long last — a more efficient, attractive and multi-purpose use of the parking lot behind The Convention Grill?

— Is this an area that requires, or at least would benefit significantly, from 24/7 coordination with Linden Hills’ SAP?

Carlson, who attended the August meeting and is being given generally good reviews for his interaction with residents, argues that “height doesn’t mean more density,” directing attention to density-driven traffic issues in the immediate area. The recently approved five-story Edina Collaborative project for 50th & France includes 110 units. The 64 units Carlson proposes for his project on the Edina Cleaners site would be somewhat larger individually.

But from a petition still circulating through the neighborhood, (and signed by 217 residents as this goes to press), as well as an unscientific survey of residents at the August meeting, height, not density is the overriding issue. Residents like Mark Schmidt, an attorney who grew up in the neighborhood and recently moved back after a decade in Chicago, seem adamant in their opposition to the “reinvention” of the intersection a five-story building would bring. Schmidt authored a widely circulated email detailing points of critical concern.

“This isn’t 50th & France,” Schmidt said. “That’s downtown Edina. This is a neighborhood business node. Five stories completely changes the character of the area.

“We’re not opposed to change. All we’re (asking) is that the change reflect the values and character of what is here now, and based on what I’m hearing that means two stories, no more than three.

“This is a talkative neighborhood. People are out in the streets, walking dogs or whatever, and talking about this. The concern is this ‘mothership effect’: something so big it throws everything else out of whack.”

Schmidt and others regularly point to the existing SAP for Edina’s Valley View & Wooddale intersection, which restricts businesses to 36 feet in height.

Mark Nolan, transportation planner for Edina, is overseeing the SAP. Nolan emphasized that, unlike 50th & France where the city solicited developers to reimagine city-owned properties (two parking ramps), the city, in the case of 44th & France, has no dog in the hunt, other than updating its comprehensive plan.

“I don’t think anyone wants to see another 50th & France at 44th,” Nolan said. “They are two entirely different districts.

“The city’s role at this stage of the process is purely as liaison, facilitating the discussion between interested parties. I think [Carlson] has heard the neighborhood’s concerns.”

That said, the visions produced by the city’s consultants imagined the area significantly transformed, with wider sidewalks and pedestrian-appealing rear alley walkways (a la 50th & France). Then there were those Old Pasadena-style woonerfs and, the (really) big-ticket item, a covered parking structure, perhaps with a public plaza atop it to replace the splat of crumbling asphalt that has filled the space behind The Convention Grill, Hello Pizza and the France Avenue businesses for decades.

“This is all very preliminary,” Nolan said. “There hasn’t been any discussion, much less any super-detailed study, of how to pay for something like that.

“If it ever happens I suppose there could be some TIF (Tax Increment Financing), which the city uses here and there. And yes, it would be expensive, no question about that.”

The takeaway from the conversations with both Nolan and Brian Schaffer, project coordinator for Minneapolis with responsibility for the Linden Hills SAP, is that there is no significant, regular coordination of planning for the two sides of France at 44th — or really anywhere along the border. What common standards exist are essentially a reflection of residents’ tastes, which may be as it is supposed to be.

Still, for a community business hub like 44th & France, an argument could be made that a fully coordinated plan might better manage architectural aesthetics, parking and traffic flow.

Carlson’s five-story proposition may be a poker player’s opening move in a bargaining process. He may find (or know of) a way to make a smaller project financially viable. But the possibility exists that if the Small Area Plan being drafted is too constrictive, a larger scale renovation of the district, with amenities appealing to most, may stall for quite some time to come.

Carlson’s project and an upgrading of 44th & France may not be umbilically linked. But an infusion of cash has to come from somewhere. Is the neighborhood OK if, in the near-to-intermediate term, little or nothing changes or improves at 44th & France?

Schmidt gave it a moment’s thought and said, “If Carlson doesn’t build, someone else will. A five-story building isn’t the only thing that can be viable there. The neighborhood will be fine.”