Why there’s an empty lot across from Lake Calhoun

MinnPost photo by Martha Garcés
With stunning views of Lake Calhoun... an empty lot.

A reporter’s primary job is to tell people what’s happening. But I believe there’s an additional brief: to tell people what’s not happening and why. The reason: some things that should be happening aren’t.

I could give you dozens of examples, but one I’ve grown obsessed with is an empty one-and-a-quarter-acre parcel of land across the street from Lake Calhoun next to the Calhoun Beach Club. Chances are, you’ve driven by it hundreds of times or glimpsed it on a walk around the lake. It’s full of gravel and tumbleweed and surrounded by a hurricane fence.

Folks, this is a prime building site, now valued at about $2.6 million. Not only would any structure going up there, if it were high enough, have terrific views of Lake Calhoun to the south and the Midtown Greenway, Lake of the Isles and maybe even downtown to the north, but it’s within walking distance of stores and restaurants in Uptown and a shopping center anchored by a Whole Foods market to the west. I would consider selling my first-born son, his wife and their three cats to live there.

According to the owner, Billy Weisman, who masterminded a vending machine business and serves on various nonprofit boards such as the Minnesota Community Foundation and the Jane Goodall Institute, the land is currently leased to the Metropolitan Council to be used as a staging area for a sewer project running along the greenway. “No development can begin until the sewer project is completed and best guess for housing or commercial development would be early 2014,” he says.

Given past history, however, even that’s no sure thing.

Developer approached

The lot had been the site of a somewhat undistinguished two-story office building housing the Weisman family’s enterprises. In 2005, however, Weisman approached Michael Lander to develop the property. Lander, a local developer, had garnered awards for his 21st Avenue Lofts and West River Commons and been proclaimed an “Urban Warrior” at the 2004 National Association of Home Builders Conference. With his credits and the site’s natural advantages, city residents had every reason to expect something pretty special at that spot.

Empty Lake Calhoun Lot
MinnPost photo by Martha Garcés
The land is currently leased to the Metropolitan Council to be used as a staging area for a sewer project running along the greenway.

Lander, who has a reputation for working closely with community groups, met with members of the Cedar-Isles Dean Neighborhood Association or CIDNA. The group was prepared. Under the leadership of Robert Corrick, a retired banker and head of the neighborhood group’s Land Use & Development Committee, it listed 12 criteria for any project. Some of the requirements seem obvious: the building should be nice-looking, provide adequate parking, keep the sounds of fans and air-conditioners to a minimum, cover all the ugly stuff, like trash containers, with landscaping and so on.

But the group had more extensive demands. The development had to adhere strictly to a myriad of zoning requirements, not hinder the sight lines of any existing residents, not shade any residential units at any time of the year, not change the character of the neighborhood, which CIDNA says is primarily single-family houses (a challengable contention since most of them are across the greenway to the north), not increase traffic and not shade the greenway or Kenilworth trail — except during the winter solstice — and then only a little bit.

Lander says that when presented with the dozen requirements, he responded, “OK, I’ll be back.” But when he returned with a design — for a 12-story condo project, the same height as the Calhoun Beach Club — that met all the group’s criteria, they rejected the building anyway. “I said, ‘I don’t know what to do with that,’” says Lander.

According to Corrick, the building was too tall even though it would have been the same size as the buildings right next to it. The lot is zoned OR-2 or office residential and has a height limit of 56 feet. The land is also part of a Shoreland Overlay District, which limits heights to a mere 35 feet. As if all that weren’t restrictive enough, buildings along the greenway are not supposed to exceed five stories.

But what about the two-building Calhoun Beach Club complex sitting right next door? The new structure would have simply matched it. Corrick, however, asked for and received an opinion from Faegre & Benson contending that “the height of the Calhoun Beach Club Apartments establishes no binding legal precedent with respect to the height of the Lander project.”

Lander rejiggered the proposal several times, and eventually, CIDNA approved his plan for a 46-unit condo building with two small “towers” — one 86 feet and the other 70 feet, stepping down to two stories on the side of the building facing the greenway. The agreement only came, says Lander, “after I spent $150,000 and a year having my head bashed against the table. They [the group] substantially changed the economics of my project.” 

And, the economics weren’t compelling enough to see Lander through the housing market meltdown that came soon after. He withdrew from the project, already having demolished the two-story office building.

Since then, the land has lain fallow. In the intervening years between then and 2014, when development might take place, the city will have foregone by my estimate, about $2.4 million in property taxes. Granted, that’s not much for a city with a $1.1 billion budget, but the funds could have paid for a few schoolteachers or cops on the beat.

New developer

This spring, another developer came on the scene: Ted Bigos, a real estate mogul whose Golden Valley company owns and manages 42 apartment communities, mostly in the Twin Cities metro. He offered for the community’s approval three options: a 13-story apartment building, 136 feet high with 150 to 170 units; an eight-story L-shaped structure that would be eight stories high; or a 56-foot-high C-shaped building.

CIDNA flatly rejected the first two options, and it ventured to tinker with the third, asking for a “stepback” on the greenway, meaning that the back of the structure would only be one or two stories high. Although Bigos’ proposals were hardly architectural marvels, the sketch of the project the neighborhood group wanted showed a wide, flat four-story building that looked more like a factory than an apartment complex. After that, Bigos withdrew from the project. (Bigos did not respond to phone calls or emails.)

The lot sits across Thomas Ave. from the Calhoun Beach Club and is bordered by the Midtown Greenway to the north and Lake Street to the South.

All this sounds as though CIDNA simply wants the property to remain an empty lot, even though its resolution to oppose Bigos’ plans says it supports high-density development. Appearances to the contrary, insists Corrick, he wants development and has lost friends over his stand, but he adds, “it has to be sensitive to the neighborhood.”

How sensitive?

Aside from the zoning, the group asserts that a 136-foot high hi-rise would be a complete anomaly. In past practice, the city has allowed no tall buildings outside of downtown or near the University, they contend. And, if one tall building went up, well, there would be a ring of tall buildings around the lake. What’s more, a tower would obstruct residents’ lake views and, again, cast shadows on the greenway and the single-family houses to the north.

Of course, zoning can be changed. According to a local land use expert who asked that his name not be used, Minneapolis is a city with such a stringent zoning code that “it’s pretty much expected that you could win a variance.” Further, the 35-foot Shore Overlay limit is “unreasonable,” he adds. A developer, he says, might successfully argue for a waiver.

Taller buildings

And perhaps, there should be taller buildings around the lake. A huge selling point for any developer would be views of the lakes that would be available only to higher floors. One area resident commenting on CIDNA’s objections, wrote: “I for one would like to see a development of some density on this site vs. the empty lot we’ve grown accustomed to. I can think of no other urban area similar in size to Minneapolis and St. Paul that has such a stunted skyline outside of the core. Why is that? Should [a] three stories limit be all right in a town when urban sprawl is such a problem? As for the hollow argument of the lake being ringed by towers, I’ve been hearing that since I moved here in 1968…I myself would like to see a larger tower with good architecture instead of another five floor wood construction that looks much like whatever is being built these days.”

As for the sight lines, the land use expert says that unless residents own easements that give them specific rights to view the lake, they have no standing to complain. And the shading issue, he adds, is “ludicrous.” By the same logic, city couldn’t allow a two-story house to be built next to a one-story house because it would cast a shadow. True, adding a tall building would shade a longer stretch of the greenway. But to anyone speeding along on a bike, it would hardly be noticeable.

No neighborhood group has the formal power to stop anything. Typically, however, even if only a few people come out against a development, the City Council member representing that ward will vote it down, and his or her colleagues will follow suit. So even the pettiest objections can bring a project to a halt.

Corrick suggested that a good way to end the controversy might be to have Parks and Recreation buy the parcel and add it to the parkland to the east. That would be a shame in my opinion. Aside from the loss of future tax revenues, the city would have to spend money it needs elsewhere for green space in a neighborhood that already has plenty of it. What’s more, nobody is going to risk life and limb crossing Lake Street to frolic in an empty lot, no matter how green.

It is a site that should be developed. And what’s on it should be spectacular. Lander suggests “a signature building,” one that visitors to the city would be told they had to see. “Let’s find the best, most creative architect, and not put many constraints on,” he adds.

Will neighbors allow that to happen? In view of recent history, I wouldn’t be too optimistic.

Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by Scott Stansbarger on 08/22/2012 - 08:35 am.

    Tall Buildings

    Thank the good Lord above that cities like New York and Chicago don’t have the same type of people running their city as we do ours. I will never understand the attitudes of the people who disagree with the building of high-rise structures. When you purchase or rent an apartment in a center core or near a center core, you run a great chance of losing that precious view at some point due to new construction. If you want a view of a great lake without the future possibility of losing a ‘great sightline’, then you shouldn’t move into a major city. My wife and I have discussed moving downtown and you know what, we are fully aware of the possibility of a taller structure “blocking our view”.

    • Submitted by Jim Young on 08/22/2012 - 04:52 pm.

      Some negatives to tall buildings

      There are issues with tall buildings, particularly in some Minneapolis neighborhoods. One problem is that we don’t have the needed infrastructure to support them in this particular case. This site doesn’t have access to great public transit so a tall building that adds a lot of new residential units will add to traffic problems in an area already choked with traffic. Another problem, not mentioned in the article, is the “wind shadow” effect that tall buildings create near Lake Calhoun. If you’re out sailing on the lake and the wind is from the right direction, the tall buildings already in the area cast an unseen but very real wind shadow with swirling currents over the lake. Ring the lake with tall buildings and you could exacerbate these and other existing problems significantly.

      I think the neighborhoods along the Hiawatha light rail corridor, for example, would be much better equipped to handle more tall buildings. They have better access to both public transit and freeways and most aren’t nearly as overloaded with automobile traffic already. Of course, the demand for housing in those neighborhoods isn’t a high either. 🙁

  2. Submitted by Amy Bergquist on 08/22/2012 - 09:28 am.

    Shading the Greenway

    “True, adding a tall building would shade a longer stretch of the Greenway. But to anyone speeding along on a bike, it would hardly be noticeable.” From what I understand, part of the rationale for not shading the Greenway has to do with ice and safety. If shading promotes the formation of icy patches, then the Greenway would be more dangerous during the winter months. I use the Greenway during the winter and it can be treacherous along the patches that do not get sun. I’m sure a creative adjoining landowner/developer could come up with some solutions to address these safety concerns.

  3. Submitted by Glenn Miller on 08/22/2012 - 09:36 am.

    Development

    The question is one, ultimately, of allowed height versus sprawl. At this point in this city’s development, if we want to grow in numbers and in tax base, we need to grow UP. There is very little room available for infill. This neighborhood group’s mentality is the same that killed the Linden Hills project, along with numerous projects in the Loring Park area during the mid-00’s. We live in an urban area, we need urban density. And, by the way, as a regular user of the Midtown Greenway, I welcome variable shade along the route, whether it comes from a beautifully-designed high-rise or a beautiful oak tree. It is part of the urban experience.

    • Submitted by David Brauer on 08/22/2012 - 12:07 pm.

      Linden Hills

      If you’re talking Linden Corners, it didn’t die —  it just came back as a three-story project within the zoning code. The developer SWORE it wouldn’t work unless it was taller until, viola, it did.

      I’m all for densification (perhaps much more at this Calhoun site) but we shouldn’t take developers’ claims at face value. As much as I like Michael Lander, the housing market blew up on him. I do think residents deserve some consideration for shading and other significant effects if they bought their properties with existing zoning in place. Rezone only at great peril and great consideration. You can still get densification within the code.

      • Submitted by Adam Platt on 08/24/2012 - 10:16 pm.

        Well….

        I think the Linden Corners developer’s argument was not exactly as you describe it. He said he could not provide certain amenities in the building and certain design upgrades if he had to pull down the height of the building. I believe the current version has no retail or public amenities at the ground level, merely residential, which is perhaps not the greatest for a business district.

        But David’s larger point is well taken. All developers’ will overstate the economic challenges of a development, but I find no more so than some of the demands of this neighborhood group. Stand at this site and the most prominent features of it is are a noisy eight-lane 40 mph roadway and two adjacent high-rises to the west.

  4. Submitted by chuck holtman on 08/22/2012 - 09:41 am.

    If this reporting is accurate,

    I have never heard such a bunch of baloney. The only property anywhere near this lot is the Calhoun Beach Club. It is across a wide thoroughfare from the lake. It is not “on the lake” and besides, there is no other private property that would follow a “precedent” about higher buildings on the lake unless we’re talking about teardowns of well-established and highly valued single family homes on the east and west sides of the lake, which seems very unlikely and can be readily managed by ordinance. And frankly, if that results from consensual land transactions within a well-considered zone, that could be a very positive thing. There are at most 2 houses that could be touched by a “shadow,” north of the lot, on the other side of the greenway and offset by the dog park, and they already are on fully shaded lots. The greenway is an urban corridor, the interest of which comes from its interaction with the backs of urban properties and the notion that a bit more “shading” is cognizable is laughable. Bulding height makes an urban core vital and is essential to make possible a shift, over time, to a non-automobile-dominated corridor. Last Saturday morning I was forced to move by car from St Louis Park to Uptown, and it took half an hour to move four blocks thru the gridlock in front of that lot. Is that the vision CIDNA prefers? Sheesh.

  5. Submitted by Nick Magrino on 08/22/2012 - 09:49 am.

    Fantastic Article

    What a great summary of knee-jerk, hysterical democracy running wild in this town. What really gets me about situations like this (and Linden Corner, and the initial MoZaic fight, etc) is that the people opposing high-density development are almost always very liberal people who ordinarily are all over anything vaguely environmentally-friendly.

    There’s nothing we can do more to save the planet than dense, infill development. No amount of hybrid cars will save us from crappy land-use planning.

  6. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 08/22/2012 - 11:40 am.

    “Stunted skyline’ meets stunted developers?

    High-rise corridors dominating Calhoun-Lake?

    Prototype…Hong Kong as an investor/developer’s dream-scape?

    City codes are all bad?

    Let the man with the bucks define our street-scapes?

    Lake views are not sustainable?

    Some, not all, urban investors who think UP is the only way to go are blinded by their desire to control the landscape?…

    “If we can control the landscape by downsizing green space…maybe we can better control the people who never look up anymore anyway…what’s up there covering the sky but glass and steel and brick?

    Green space overlaid by green bucks is planning raised to it highest and best abuse?

    UP is a vertical form of urban sprawl.

    Where is King Kong when you need him?

  7. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 08/22/2012 - 12:09 pm.

    First, let’s be clear: this is not a news article, but an opinionated blog post. Big difference. But at least Ms. Harris is clear enough on it, with all her use of “I” here.

    Second, it astonishes me that people here calmly say we have to plan land use, and have ordinances about it in the city, and then praise a couple of would-be developers whose whole project is based not on the already-planned land use ordinances and zoning code restrictions the city has, but on their own double-digit profit expectations. “It’s not economically viable” for me to fit my project within Minneapolis’s restrictions on proper land use, is the excuse applied always. People who actually LIVE in the area are automatically considered Luddites and anti-anything-logical.

    Harris can shill for developers if she wants. And both the city’s neighborhoods and the city itself have the right to insist on their vision of proper land use.

    • Submitted by chuck holtman on 08/22/2012 - 05:04 pm.

      Ms Sullivan – A neighborhood does NOT have the right to insist on its vision of proper land use. A resident has the right to have his or her reasonable expectations respected. When I bought a house, I bought one in the middle of a well-established, small-lot residential area because I am risk-averse about my immediate area. But I am three blocks from Central Corridor and do NOT have a right to my vision for that corridor. There is a regional aspect to University Avenue and the light rail, and I have a right, as a Twin CIties civic participant and not a three-blocks-away homeowner, to development in that corridor that is sensible and appropriate for the regional role of that corridor. Indeed, because that corridor is at the very center of the region, I would like very much to see height, density and mixed use. Similarly, the city has an extensive prerogative regarding its land use planning but it must rest on and fit with a sound plan for the region’s economic, social and economic vitality. My comments, at least, were not “praise for developers” but a questioning of objections that seem wholly pretextual and contrary to the urban and regional context of that site/corridor, which in fact has no “neighbors” apart from the Calhoun Beach Club.

  8. Submitted by mark wallek on 08/22/2012 - 12:40 pm.

    A novel use…

    Would be to put in some low income housing and take some pressure off the north side which is struggling with an overabundance of non resident ownership.

  9. Submitted by Larry Moran on 08/22/2012 - 01:42 pm.

    A Different View

    I find it interesting that there are so many people commenting, but I wonder how many actually went to the CIDNA meetings with the developer? How many actually live in the neighborhood, or even Minneapolis. My recollection of the Calhoun Beach development is that, after it went up, the neighborhood and the city met to decide what development should look like in the future. They came up with guidelines. Practically the first thing both developers wanted to do was receive a variance from those guidelines. This highlights the age old question: who decides what a neighborhood ultimately looks like, developers or residents?

    Ms. Harris may see nothing wrong with taller buildings surrounding the lakes but how many residents agree with her? Her logic for allowing these taller buildings is that it would be a huge selling point for developers? Is it the city’s job to make developer’s prospects better? Shouldn’t it try to balance the desires of developers and those of the residents? I am all for increased density in the city, but it needs to meet with what current residents reasonably ask for.

    Fortunately, Ms. Harris doesn’t make the zoning rules in the city. I suspect it would look substantially different, and not necessarily for the better.

  10. Submitted by David Frenkel on 08/22/2012 - 01:49 pm.

    Calhoun Beach Club Condos

    The Calhoun Beach Club Condos did not go up without a fight from neighborhoods around lake Calhoun including the Lake Point Condos. The Calhoun Beach Club Condos were given tax increment financing (TIF) by the City of Minneapolis and the 35 foot state law was taken to court and was thrown out. When organizations met to fight the Calhoun Beach Club expansion I don’t recall being a litmus test to make sure people were liberal.
    Somehow Washington, DC has thrived with building height restrictions of only 130 feet. Certainly Minneapolis can figure out a way to limit building height around its parks and lakes which make Minneapolis what it is. If the ammenitities of NYC or Chicago move to Minneapolis ring the lakes with skyscrappers and save one for the Donald (Trump Towers).

  11. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/22/2012 - 07:06 pm.

    Interesting post and commentary

    I don’t live in the immediate area, don’t know it at all – I’ve only seen the lakes the city is apparently famous for once, and I’ve been here 3 years now. My point is that I don’t have a dog in this fight, but it’s an interesting fight. Ms. Sullivan is correct – this is blog post, not a news article. I don’t mind that because, as she usually does, Ms. Harris is pretty clear about ax-grinding when that’s what she’s doing. Ms. Harris is correct, I think, in pointing out the occasional hypocrisy of local residents when change comes THEIR way instead of to someone else’s part of the city. Other commenters are correct in pointing out that developers are usually far more interested in their bottom line than in the character of the neighborhood they leave behind after their project is complete.

    In my years as a planning commissioner, I once met a developer who had an actual, functioning conscience. But only one. The others would follow in Ms. Harris’ figurative footsteps to sell relatives, friends, their collective souls, to make money. I hope that sounds unflattering. It’s intended to be. Conversely, zoning is the key to just about any development, and Minneapolis has a zoning code that apparently approaches the Byzantine. That’s not good, and it doesn’t necessarily make for “good” development. NIMBY certainly seems to rule in some areas of the Twin Cities, usually areas where money resides in one form or another. It’s pretty hard to imagine this debate taking place over filling one of the several vacant lots left by the tornado on the North Side, even if the lot in question has a great view of downtown from an upper floor, or the gorgeous, soon-to-be-completed Lowry Bridge.

    Frankly, I’d like to see Mark Wallek’s low-key suggestion come into play. Whatever the median income in Minneapolis might be, I’d be amazed if there were many people within $10,000 of that figure who live on the shores of Lake Calhoun. Some contact with other economic groups – who are not their employees – might broaden the horizons of a few of the local Babbitts.

  12. Submitted by Michael Welch on 08/22/2012 - 10:11 pm.

    Check the record

    Agree that Marlys Harris’ article is more cant than fact, which is unfortunate because the subject lot is an eyesore and a waste at present, and I’m curious as to what actual barriers there are to a sensible, cool development. A “land use expert” who won’t go on the record with what amount to legal opinions? Run away.

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/22/2012 - 10:41 pm.

    Be a great place for a little drive.

    Use to Porky’s down the block, and you’d get bikers right off the green way,

  14. Submitted by Evan Roberts on 08/23/2012 - 01:55 pm.

    There’s an interesting political economy underlying what Minneapolis has in place, which is an apparently strict zoning code that the City Council (elected and administrative) will compromise on (variances) that also gives neighborhood groups a large, but undefined say, in what gets built.

    The idea that neighborhood associations have a right to control what gets built is, when you reflect on it, rather at odds with the classical version of “property rights” and limited government that is talked about at higher levels of abstraction and government.

    Pair a system that places a lot of restrictions on multi-unit residential development with high demand for that same type of housing, and what you get is a high payoff for developers who are able to navigate the approval process. But then you get neighborhood associations and local residents complaining about the super-high profits that developers are making. It’s an unfortunate dynamic, but it’s somewhat of the city’s own making.

    Personally, I hope this site is developed with something as tall as the neighboring Calhoun Beach Club. The monstrosity of that 6-8 lane road seems far worse for the area than allowing denser housing development in an area well served by transit and walkable amenities.

  15. Submitted by Dale Hoogeveen on 08/23/2012 - 11:59 pm.

    To me the Calhoun Beach Club condos are an eyesore; we need no more of them, not in that area.

    The access route along West Lake Street is already at or above capacity; so adequate street access is not available.

    The zoning restrictions were put in place specifically to answer the negative effects of a high rise development such as is proposed above. This business of assuming to get a variance needs to stop, especially in this case since the zoning restrictions involved were the result of the effects of just such a project as this. There is no need to repeat mistakes of the past simply because someone gets a wild hair and makes big money promises.

    I would much rather that parcel be added to the park system.

  16. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/25/2012 - 10:06 am.

    Poor business planning

    I’m looking at this article and another about a Linden Hills project and I’m struck in both instances by the poor planning on behalf of the developers. Restrictions and objections are in place before the land is purchased, this is why developers are seeking variances. Who buys a chunk of land without know in advance what you or cannot do with it? Why are you planning a development that requires a variance in the first place? And if you buy a chunk of land and don’t get the variance, who’s fault is that?

    Look: you pay your money you take your chances. If you plan a big giant development you can expect to run into neighborhood resistance in most cases. This is just looks like a failure of due diligence on behalf of the developer to me.

  17. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/25/2012 - 10:15 am.

    Signature building?

    This is no place for a signature building that will attract tourists, that suggestion is just plain silly.

  18. Submitted by Scott Alan on 08/25/2012 - 10:25 pm.

    Suburbs are the answer.

    Lemme bottom line this one kids. Minneapolis is a dump and is circling the drain faster by the day. Anyone dim enough to want to live in the city is to be pitied. Let’s quiz the met council and city council to see who takes public transportation. I’ll bet few if anyone knows what the actual cost of a light rail ticket is, one way. I do, you don’t. No one cares anymore. Pity. Besides didn’t Minneapolis give a load of cash to a private company to stay here? Wal Mart? McDonald’s? Nope. The roads are crumbling, snow removal depends on how much gas money is left, crime is skyrocketing, downtown is a parolee’s heaven. Loud profanity is the norm. What we need is more money available to teach diversity to squirrels.

  19. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/26/2012 - 11:28 am.

    Suburbs?

    Scott’s just jealous because the new Vikings stadium is in MPLS.

  20. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 08/27/2012 - 12:02 pm.

    Really funny to read some people who say that allowing dense development means catering to rich developers. It’s sort of the other way around, folks. The NIMBY folks are the ones with existing property who have everything to gain by artificially constraining market supply so their property values skyrocket. The developers are just fulfilling demand. Of course they make money. But who ultimately benefits alongside? Our city which grows its tax base without assuming significant long-term maintenance liabilities, the people who are able to live in the neighborhood for less artificially inflated prices, and even the existing neighbors who benefit from increased neighborhood demand for shops/restaurants/quality transit.

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