Three stories approved for 44th Street condo building

Developer wanted four stories; residents concerned about height

A rendering of a proposed four-story condo building near Lake Harriet. Rendering courtesy City of Minneapolis

The Minneapolis Planning Commission approved plans Oct. 16 for a condo on 44th Street near Lake Harriet, despite objections from the developer and nearby residents.

The commission approved a conditional-use permit to allow the building to be up to three stories. It also approved a conditional-use permit to allow the condo and an existing single-family house to be on the same site.

The plan generated pushback from nearby residents and developer John Gross at the Oct. 16 public hearing. Representatives of Gross argued that the commission should allow for a four-story building, which Gross has proposed. Some residents argued that any development on the site shouldn’t be allowed to be more than 2 1/2 stories, the maximum allowed by one of the site’s two zoning designations.

“There’s going to be a building built here,” said resident Kelly Noble, who lives adjacent to the site. “My hope is that it will conform to the height restrictions that are in place.”

The location of John Gross' proposed condo building along 44th Street. Lake Harriet Parkway runs to the east, while Upton Avenue runs to the west.
The location of John Gross’ proposed condo building along 44th Street. Lake Harriet Parkway runs to the east, while Upton Avenue runs to the west.

Gross’ site has a primary zoning designation that allows for multi-family dwellings of up to four stories. However, it’s also part of shoreland overlay district, a designation that limits structures to 2 1/2 stories or 35 feet. Shoreland overlay is intended to preserve the shoreline around protected bodies of water, such as Lake Harriet.

Properties located within an overlay district are subject to provisions of both the primary district and the overlay district. The overlay district governs when the two are in conflict.

However, the city recognizes the need to be more flexible with building-height standards in areas where taller buildings are consistent with the surroundings and where the introduction of a taller building wouldn’t adversely impact the use and enjoyment of nearby properties, according to a 2012 memo. As such, it allows the height limitations of each district to be increased by conditional-use permit.

The zoning code requires the Planning Commission to make six findings of fact before granting a conditional-use permit. It requires the commission to consider four additional factors when determining the maximum height and three more for a conditional-use permit within the shoreland overlay.

For Gross’ project, city staff recommended approval of the conditional-use permit for height based on its findings. Staff concluded that a four-story building would not negatively impact the light and air of surrounding properties, nor would it have a greater shadowing impact than existing three- and four-story buildings within the immediate vicinity.

Staff found that the project is generally in keeping with the scale and character of surrounding uses. However, they found that it would be reasonable to lower the overall height to three stories, or 42 feet, 10 inches, to ensure compatibility with the “scale and character” of the surrounding area.

Carol Lansing, an attorney for Gross working on the project, voiced objections to the recommendation for three stories at the public hearing. She said Gross and his team don’t feel like a four-story condo would be out of place, noting other nearby buildings of a similar height.

She also noted that other multi-family buildings of a similar height have been built within the shoreland overlay, even after the designation took effect.

“The changing grade, the trees, all of this will screen the project from someone at the lake, and it will blend in,” Lansing said.

Several Linden Hills residents said lake-users would be able to see the top of a four-story building from the lake. Walter Pitt said it presents a question of whether the lake should serve a public or private benefit.

“The question is whether the present public benefit for all the citizens of Minneapolis, who use Lake Harriet in its protected state and presently enjoy more natural views from the lake, is now to be transferred to a private benefit for a few individuals who can afford to buy these penthouse units that will have views of lake,” he wrote in comments to the commission.

Constance Pepin said other buildings of a similar height in the area should not be used to justify a new four-story building, because those buildings were developed before the shoreland overlay district was enacted.

Loran Meccia, who lives adjacent to the site, said she’s in favor of development in Linden Hills but concerned about the violation of the shoreland overlay district. She said she would find the three-story building, as approved by the Planning Commission, to be acceptable but that four stories would tower over her home and be visible from the lake.

Noble said she appreciates that the developer has proposed saving the single-family home but that she’s concerned about the height of the project, even at three stories.

After the public hearing, Commissioner Scott Vreeland made a motion to deny a three-story conditional-use permit. He said the project would impede a public benefit — the view of the shoreline — and added that the shoreland overlay is a way to ensure that “public benefit is more important than the private benefit.”

“I don’t see any particular reason, other than additional profit or sellability of this particular building units, to warrant a change,” he said.

Commissioner John Slack said he agreed that a height of four stories would be too much and added that the overall mass of building would be problematic to him. He said he’s concerned about tree loss on the site.

Several commissioners spoke against Vreeland’s motion. Nick Magrino said he was initially inclined to support Gross’ request for four stories, adding that staff did a pretty good job outlining why the commission could legally grant that request.

He said it’s frustrating how much time the Planning Commission was spending on an eight-unit building in an area that’s in demand. He said there all sorts of policies that encourage different types of housing in Minneapolis, allowing people to age in place in an area that’s relatively well served by transit.

“We have certainly granted a number of conditional-use permits for height in the shoreland overlay,” he said, “and I think it’s again sort of frustrating the extent to which this has sort of become a social activity for some folks to come out and oppose things.”

The comment sparked an angry response from Pepin. “That is offensive,” she said. “That is offensive to those of us here. … That was an insult to public engagement.”

Magrino responded that the Planning Commission has granted conditional-use permits in less affluent areas of the city that haven’t been able to organize against them.

“I feel that this is an example of privilege in the city,” he said.

Commissioner Amy Sweasy said she didn’t think the commission could support and make findings to deny the conditional-use permit.

“I know it’s not the neighbors’ choice that this be next to where they live,” she said. “I know some people don’t like that you’ll be able to see it from other areas of the lake, but I certainly don’t think that qualifies as detrimental or endangering public health, safety, comfort or general welfare.”

Commissioner Ryan Kronzer said project goes above and beyond in terms of stormwater treatment.

The commission denied the motion on a 4-3 vote, with chair Matt Brown breaking a 3-3 tie. The commissioners subsequently voted 5-1 to approve the conditional-use permit for height to allow for a maximum of three stories or 42 feet, 10 inches. They unanimously approved the conditional-use permit that allows the single-family home and condo to be on the same site, a concept known as a cluster development.

After the meeting, Gross said his team plans to “take it all in,” figure out what it means and figure out its next steps. They would have 10 days to file an appeal.

“We believe the project is appropriate as four stories,” he said, noting the multi-family base zoning designation.