Council denies resident appeal of apartment project at 26th & Stevens

Credit: Rendering by DJR Architecture

The City Council has denied an appeal seeking to block a five-story proposal for 70 apartments and commercial space at the southwest corner of 26th & Stevens.

Giancarlo Casale, a nearby resident, filed the appeal on behalf of neighbors.

“This development has caused a lot of stress on our street. There is already one person who has arranged to sell his house and move away,” he said.

The appeal argues that the soil should be tested to prove that hazardous materials make underground parking impractical. A dry cleaner and gas station previously operated on the site.

The developer’s architect has linked poor soil to the proposed building height, which features parking on the ground floor instead of underground. City staff have said the contaminated soil makes underground parking costly and impractical.

Casale pointed out that a building previously proposed at 26th & Stevens and approved by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) had both an underground basement and ground-floor residential.

“We couldn’t really understand why a site that was approved 10 years ago before we spent $1.3 million dollars and a decade to clean up the site was feasible … and now all of a sudden, despite the fact that the soil is much cleaner, neither of those items are possible any longer,” Casale said. “…Cost effectiveness is not supposed to be the basis of your decision, it’s only the question of practicality.”

Casale also reached out to an MPCA official who said the developer could indeed build underground parking, so long as excavated soil is managed properly and they removed and reinstalled the current vapor system.

“I don’t know if you get a lot of smoking guns at the planning & zoning commission, but that seems like pretty close to a smoking gun as far as I can tell,” Casale said. 

An environmental consultant for the developer, Ken Haberman, said the soil was remediated in 2005 down to at least 10 feet, when soil was removed, hauled off-site to a landfill, and replaced with clean fill. The soil is still contaminated below a depth of 12 feet, he said. He did not recommend underground parking.

“The closer that you get to having indoor space close to that contaminated soil, the higher the risk of the vapors from that system entering the building,” he said.

Another point of contention for Casale relates to the history of why the property was rezoned “C2,” which allows for denser development. He said it was rezoned after extensive neighborhood input to pave the way for construction of 14 townhouses and commercial space.

“It is exactly the opposite of the kind of building that is now being proposed,” he said. “We do feel relatively strongly that because of this history, the zoning limit for a C2 property should be considered the upper limit of what is appropriate at the site.”

City staff have said past projects were proven economically infeasible, in part because of the soil conditions.

Upon hearing the appellant’s arguments, Planning Manager Jason Wittenberg told the city’s Zoning & Planning Committee that economic factors can be a consideration in granting variances, but cannot be the only consideration. He said the soil condition was only one of the factors city staff considered in recommending approval of the project. He also said most of the site was already zoned C2 prior to 2005.

Council Member Lisa Bender and other council members voted to deny the appeal.

“This site has been vacant for a long time and heavily polluted,” Bender said. “It is a challenging site. I know that there are high expectations in the community and certainly [the former proposal] is a beautiful building, but it’s not the building that’s in front of us, or for consideration within the context of the legal considerations that we make. I think that staff’s original recommendation is well supported.”