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Neighborhood group skeptically eyeballs Lake Calhoun apartment design

Neighborhood groups like the the Cedar-Isles-Dean association have no formal power, but they can stop a project cold if they disapprove.

Trammell Crow favors a structure that rises 11 stories and leaves room for a park at the rear; but they would need a zoning variance to build it.
Courtesy of Trammell Crow

In her exuberant inaugural address Monday, Minneapolis’ brand-new mayor vowed to make the city grow, and she wasn’t at all shy about it. She envisioned a city “where 500,000 people — no 500,001 and more people — live and thrive in Minneapolis, with the greatest density along transit corridors.”   

If goings on at a recent meeting of the Land Use and Development Committee of the Cedar-Isles-Dean Neighborhood Association (CIDNA) are any indication, however, Mayor Betsy Hodges may have as much difficulty getting there as Christian, the hero of “Pilgrim’s Progress” faced on his trek to the Celestial City. Neighborhood groups like CIDNA have no formal power, but they can stop any project cold if they disapprove. And while Calhoun-area residents who showed up at the meeting said that density is fine — they get the mayor’s goal — many weren’t exactly thrilled about getting it literally in their backyard.    

At issue is a proposal by Trammell Crow, the Dallas-based real-estate development giant, to build a 177-unit apartment tower with 236 parking spots. In fact, the structure would rise only 11 stories, making it more a block than a tower, but by Minneapolis standards, it’s high. It would sit on a long, narrow lot now occupied by Tryg’s restaurant on Lake Street, about a block-and-a-half from Lake Calhoun.

On the surface at least, the development, which its backers hope will attract young professionals and other up-market renters, would align nicely with Hodges’ aims. Not only would it add people, but they would be upper-middle-class taxpaying people who could help bulk up the city’s coffers. The Truelson family (of Porky’s fame), which owns the land, would operate a new, downsized Tryg’s at the front of the building.

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And, talk about a transit corridor! Stops for the proposed Southwest LRT and a city streetcar system would lie only a few blocks distant, and the Midtown Greenway curves around the north end of the property. As if all that weren’t enough to argue for the lot’s development, Trammell Crow, in exchange for exceeding the 56-foot height limit imposed by the zoning code, promises to create a European-style park and plaza in the rear of the lot and negotiate direct access to the Greenway for residents.

Not an easy sell

But CIDNA is not exactly an easy sell. Previously the group rejected a proposal from Michael Landers, who had garnered awards for 21st Avenue Lofts and West River Commons, to put up a residential building next to the Calhoun Beach Club until he modified the plan so many times that the economics no longer made sense, particularly as the recession took hold in 2008. Four years later, CIDNA zapped three different schemes from Ted Bigos, an owner of apartment communities, to put a residential building in the same spot.

The group says that it’s not against growth or density — moderate density, anyway. “We don’t oppose everything,” says Robert Corrick, a former banker and chair of CIDNA’s land use committee. Doing that would lose the group its credibility, he adds. But CIDNA insists that any new development must respect “the sensitive and complex context of the surrounding parks, lakes, Greenway, and residential properties.”

The question is: How much respect?

About 50 people, some members of CIDNA and others residents of nearby condos like the Loop Calhoun and Calhoun Isles, braved below-zero temperatures to tell the Trammell Crow team that they were not being respectful or sensitive enough. Corrick allocated developers a half hour to unveil their plans, but the audience pelted them with so many concerns and questions that the time limit soon went by the boards.

Among the problems residents foresaw: increased traffic. (“I would like to hear you acknowledge that you are exacerbating the issue,” one woman sternly told Grady Hamilton, a Trammell Crow principal and spokesman for the project, as though she were a school teacher commanding a second-grader to confess that he had indeed pulled Betty Lou’s braids.)

CIDNA asked for a rendering of a six-story building
Courtesy of Trammell Crow
CIDNA asked for a rendering of a six-story building that would achieve the same density. It eliminates the park and would also require a variance.

Blocking of their views and diminishment of their light and air also came in for bitter complaint. As for the park, “it wouldn’t be a consolation for the loss of the sky,” said a woman from Calhoun Isles. Forty of the Loop apartments, complained one person, would lose their views — although if they are looking west, I’m not sure what they see beyond a neighboring shopping center and its surface parking lot. Another person remarked that she thought the proposal for a park was patronizing since the neighborhood already had plenty of parkland.

Hamilton offered solutions, studies and alternatives to try to appease the group. “We are working hard to work with you,” he said, reminding me a bit of an adult kid trying to please parents who will never ever love him.

Traffic talk

In a preemptive move, the team had hired Mike Spack, a traffic engineer, to study the impact the building would have on the high-volume street, which carries 40,000 cars a day. Spack said that 200-some additional cars, which came and went at different times during the day, would not have a noticeable effect on traffic. Making the exit from the building a right-turn only would improve matters. And, then, of course, after the LRT and the streetcar came on line, traffic would diminish dramatically.

He didn’t manage to mollify many people. A couple of folks asserted that because he was in the pay of the developer, his report wasn’t objective. A woman suggested that developers wait until the LRT and the streetcars were in operation before going ahead with the building. She seemed to think that the Truelsons would be happy to wait six years or so to sell their property.

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In a bid to lower the building’s height, possibly saving some neighbors their sky views, Corrick had asked the developers to show what a six-story structure would look like instead of the 11-story tower. “This is our ode to you, Bob,” said Hamilton, and at his command, one of the architect’s staffers manipulated software that showed a reconfigured building.

To keep the same number of apartments, the structure would have to fill the entire lot. There would be no room for the park, and, said Hamilton, a building with a lower height would not have the classy look that would attract high-income renters.

The rendering was bare bones but I think that even if architects draped it in hyacinth garlands and put golden Buddhas at each corner, it would still be butt-ugly. In response to all this, a woman suggested that maybe the Truelsons should think about their “architectural legacy” and simply build something smaller. Smaller, however, might mean not financially feasible.   

Some suggestions

A few in the audience weren’t ready to dismiss Trammell Crow’s project out of hand. Jeffrey Petrola suggested the building go higher. A taller structure would allow for the same number of apartments but be less bulky and less likely to block views. “It might produce an airy density, not a blocky density,” he argued.

Jane Kennedy, a Loop resident, said that from the start, “We knew this land would be developed, and I rued the day it would happen.” But, she added, that she thought the 11-story version with the park would be acceptable and would enhance the value of her property.

Russ Palma, another Loop resident, said the building would be an improvement on the “ugly pile of dirt and leaves” now sitting behind Tryg’s restaurant.

Technically, Trammell Crow does not need CIDNA’s endorsement to move forward. It must, however, win the Planning Commission’s approval to put up a project taller than the maximum limit of 56 feet  (35 feet for a small part of the property in the Shore Overlay District).

The commission has occasionally overruled the preferences of neighborhood associations. In 2009, for example, it allowed construction of a residential mixed-use project kitty-corner from the Lake Calhoun Boathouse over the objections of three protesting associations.

The current matter goes to the city council’s Planning and Zoning Committee and on to the full council. Generally, if a neighborhood association vetoes a project, the council member from that area votes it down — and his or her fellow council members follow suit.

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John Kim, a member of CIDNA’s land use committee, asked Corrick whether any development went forth without the group’s approval. Corrick couldn’t name one.

Correction: An earlier version of this article included drawings of a previous proposal for the area, not the current design.