Council committee denies appeal of 4-story height at 43rd & Upton

Credit: Architects continue to update the design for 4624 Upton Ave. S. Rendering by Momentum Design Group

A city committee denied an appeal Oct. 1 from Linden Hills residents seeking to block a four-story building height at 43rd & Upton.

As part of the vote, the committee reduced the first-floor retail height from 19 feet to 18 feet. The committee also struck an additional fourth-floor setback recently mandated by the Planning Commission — the extra setback would have eliminated one of the 29 apartment units and hurt the project’s financing, the developer said.

Two groups of Linden Hills residents solicited neighborhood donations to raise money for the appeals. One group retained an attorney to provide representation at the hearing. Another group recently met with the developer, successfully negotiating for a warmer and “rosier” color palette.

Architect Jesse Hamer of Momentum Design Group said the initial design of the building was not welcomed by the neighborhood. Hamer said he’s since eliminated a large overhang, added an art panel, broken up a monolithic facade and swapped stone for brick to mirror surrounding buildings. Metal trim has switched from black to dark bronze, and proposed grey stucco is now a dark brown color.

Developer Clark Gassen said he plans to continue meeting with neighbors on design.

“Our development team cares, we want to do the right thing, and I think my past work in the city has proven that,” Gassen said.

An appeal from the group Concerned Residents of Linden Hills, filed by resident Constance Pepin, said the project doesn’t meet city criteria for a 56-foot building because it would be “injurious” to surrounding property. Neighboring lower-rise buildings would be dwarfed and “all but obliterated” by the new construction, she said.

City Planner Mei-Ling Smith said that given the topography of the site, the building would stand lower than many others in the area.

Several residents spoke in opposition to the height. Resident Laura Ferster said the neighborhood has to adapt to change, but change should be appropriate. The scale of new construction in Uptown, for example, makes that neighborhood increasingly unrecognizable, she said.

A couple of residents spoke in support of the project. Resident John Pacheco said he walks past Linden Hills homes that range from Victorian to Craftsman to modern in design. New construction shouldn’t have to comply with an old view of Linden Hills, he said.

Linden Hills resident Ashok Dhariwal, owner of local YogaFit locations, said his studios always have 15-foot ceilings. A shorter, less dense building may be less attractive to retailers, he said. (Dhariwal said he talked to former developer Mark Dwyer about opening a studio there before opening at 45th & France.)

Testimony at the city hearing became heated at times, with some sparring with the committee chair over two-minute time limits.

Pepin showed a photo from Star Wars with four-legged “AT-AT Walker” combat vehicles, saying it represents how city government looks to her. In her appeal, she said city approval for the project is based on “illegitimate” changes to the neighborhood’s small area plan. Her attorney said city staff knew height limits were a key motivation for Linden Hills to craft a small area plan to guide future development. After $60,000 and 16 months of work, however, they were told a proposed 44-foot height restriction must be removed, he said.

“We could all stand to learn about what went wrong with the small area plan,” said resident Larry LaVercombe.

Linden Hills resident Walter Pitt filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2014 that yielded hundreds of city emails related to the small area plan. He wanted to find out why city officials revised the three-story height limit that Linden Hills originally drafted for 43rd & Upton.

Emails show that after the draft small area plan was completed in the fall of 2013, principal city planner Brian Schaffer received feedback from Jack Byers, the city’s community planning supervisor.

“I think 3 stories/42 feet is not ambitious enough. I understand that you have a committee/’hood that doesn’t want that but encourage you to keep in mind the higher, longer term purpose of accommodating managed growth in the city,” Byers wrote. “I know that height does not equate to density, but worry that the footprints of most properties are not enough to accommodate low height density.”

The plan was further scrutinized by the city Planning Commission. A meeting with commissioners in October 2013 “did not go so well,” particularly regarding the height issue, Schaffer wrote in an email. Schaffer’s memos indicate he believed the three-story limit was in keeping with the city’s plan for sustainable growth, and he provided examples of dense three-story buildings. Other city officials took a different interpretation.

Consequently, city staff struck a compromise with Linden Hills to revise their plan to feature 44-foot height limits at the corner, which would accommodate four small stories. But the solution didn’t sit well with Planning Commissioners.

“All neighborhoods have to accommodate the increased population we’re going to have in Minneapolis,” Planning Commissioner Alissa Luepke-Pier said at a December 2013 meeting.

Planning Manager Jason Wittenberg said in an email that he and other staff members shared many of the commissioners’ concerns.

“Commissioners were picking up on the fact that, in spite of the updated position that four stories could be okay, a 44-foot limitation actually might make it impractical or infeasible to construct a four-story mixed use building,” Wittenberg wrote. “And lower ceiling heights are, of course, generally less desirable for residents of those units.”

Schaffer worked with then-Council Member Betsy Hodges’ staff on the language that was finally adopted by the City Council: “Encourage overall building heights and floor to floor heights that reflect the adjacent architectural context and are shorter than the current Zoning Code maximums for 3 and 4 story buildings (42 feet and 56 feet respectively).”

At the recent public hearing, some residents said they were disappointed that despite all the planning work, they were returning to City Hall again to debate height at 43rd & Upton. The current proposal marks the fourth development pitch since 2011.

“We have a small area plan that is useful, but it’s problematic,” LaVercombe said.

“You sold us a coat that will not protect us from the cold,” said Pitt.

Neighbors anticipate more meetings with the current developer to talk about finishes and other design changes.

“I suspect that we’ll make more,” Hamer said.

The City Council votes on the appeal Oct. 9.