44th & France mixed-use development advances

Edina Planning Commission approves plans despite height concerns

The mixed-use development proposed at the Edina Cleaners site would be four stories and include 52 apartments. Submitted image
With a favorable 8–1 vote at its March 14 meeting, Edina’s Planning Commission signaled that a significant transformation of the 44th & France business district appears likely to get under way, possibly as soon as this fall.
The vote allows “flexibility” in the language relating to the height of new construction in the area, and it likely means developer Ted Carlson’s plan for a four-story, 52-unit mixed-use complex replacing the Edina Cleaners building on the southwest corner of 44th & Sunnyside is on a favorable track for him to make a formal application, perhaps as early as late April. That would put him “within two or three months” of an up or down vote by the city council, said Cary Teague, Edina’s community development director.
Carlson hopes to break ground this fall.

The vote by the commission to allow an increase in building height at that location follows months of neighborhood activism and petitioning. A survey last fall of the immediate surrounding neighborhood showed clear opposition to construction as tall as Carlson’s building now seems likely to go.

At the March 14 hearing, several residents continued to express their displeasure with the commission’s consensus that in essence an increase in height to four stories from two on that corner was acceptable. Others continued to voice concerns about possible increases in noise, parking problems and traffic flow through the area.

The 44th & France business district has been the focus of a more grand and long-term small area plan by the city, which is working with neighborhood residents and hired consultants. That much more elaborate plan, if ever implemented, could open the area to a number of substantial changes, including — as the most expensive proposition — some kind of multi-use parking structure behind The Convention Grill.

One idea still floating around would create an underground facility with a large public green space above acting as a kind of neighborhood park. How that would be paid for has yet to be worked out, and in addition the surface parking lot currently in use at the site has a multiple ownership issue to overcome.

‘A good compromise’

For his part, Carlson is cautiously optimistic that his apartment complex is on track for approval this spring, which would allow him to demolish the dry cleaners building and deal with pollution problems beginning, he said, “this October.”

Asked about his sense of relations with neighbors who have put in a remarkable number of hours campaigning against the size of the project, he said, “We’ve been respectful of the changes suggested by the small area plan work group, and we’ve tweaked the plan accordingly. As it is now, it is significantly smaller than what we were first proposing.”

He said, “In total size the project has been reduced by 26 percent and the total number of units reduced by 17 percent. And regarding the height, we’ve brought the height down to two stories as it transitions west into the neighborhood along Sunnyside (Avenue). We believe this is a good compromise for everyone involved.”

While details have yet to be negotiated, Carlson emphasized a widening of the sidewalks along France Avenue going south and Sunnyside Avenue going west, along with landscaping (i.e. trees), benches and a mini-plaza of sorts in the triangle that is currently the driveway of the dry cleaners, as well as burying power lines, at least from the corner of 44th & Sunnyside southward past his properties. (Carlson also owns the Gateway Bank building immediately to the south of the cleaners.)

Whether the power lines are buried during construction of Carlson’s building or later was something he said still had to be worked out with the city, Xcel and other stakeholders.

Steve Young is the owner of the Arbor Commercial Group, one of whose properties is what is generally known as “the Bruegger’s building” directly across from the Edina Cleaners. Young said he has had no conversations to date with anyone regarding burying power lines in front of his property. His main concern remains adequate parking, and Young continues to push the city to allow parking on the west side of France Avenue southward past what could become Carlson’s project. He added that he has heard very little about the idea for the lot behind Bruegger’s involving covered parking and a grassy mall.

Setting a precedent

For a sense of neighborhood reaction to both the long, intense public process and what appears to be its conclusion, 26-year-old Morningside resident Nancy Bush said, “I guess I’d have to say I’m not surprised.”

“After spending a lot of time — and it was a significant amount of time for some people over here — collecting information and opinions of the neighborhood, I feel like we were ignored when it came right down to it. It’s disappointing.

“And I say that as someone who agrees that the intersection could use some fixing up. I’m not totally opposed to development. It’s just that in this case I think the neighborhood’s preferences were brushed aside.”

She conceded that Carlson himself did a significant amount of community outreach, but that in the end the decision, yet to be finalized, seemed to have followed a predictable, developer-friendly pattern.

“It concerns me, of course, that this will set a precedent for what inevitably happens across the street, on the Bruegger’s block. Which is why I’d still like to see Carlson’s design required to mimic the aesthetics, the ornamental brickwork and the roof line of the Bruegger’s building. That might put some controls on what comes next.”