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Why there’s an empty lot across from Lake Calhoun

So far, a neighborhood group has helped to keep a prize piece of land from being developed.

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

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.