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Lyndale & Franklin: New hope for a neglected intersection

Courtesy of the City of Minneapolis
Master's proposed development would include 85 residential units, a new 150-seat Garage Theatre on the lower level, a restaurant on the Franklin Avenue side, and space for five retail shops on Lyndale.

When I first returned to the Twin Cities a few years ago, my husband and I attended a play at the Theatre Garage, just west of the Lyndale-Franklin intersection in Minneapolis.

“What is this neighborhood called?” my husband asked. (He’s not from here.) An audience member sitting nearby said, “Uptown.”

“It is?” I asked. To me Uptown was about 10 blocks south and pretty much anchored by Calhoun Square.

“This corner is the gateway to Uptown,” she replied.

Some gateway, I thought. For sure, Rudolphs and Mortimer’s have been around for decades, but the rest of what is now called “the built environment” is — for a gateway — pretty unwelcoming: a thrift store, a barber shop, the Theatre Garage’s rather unimposing marquee, a surface parking lot and a couple of retail outlets off in the southwest corner that these days include an art gallery and Chi Tailor & Cleaner. (I’m a customer.) Neither trees nor flowers soften the landscape. Whether the day is sunny or gray, a visit there almost always darkens my mood.

Six-story complex proposed

But hark! Something new may be on the way. Master, a Minneapolis development and engineering firm, has proposed a somewhat innovative six-story apartment complex for the corner. It would include 85 residential units, a new 150-seat Theatre Garage on the lower level, a restaurant on the Franklin Avenue side, and space for five retail shops on Lyndale. Behind the building would sit a five-story parking ramp, and — here’s the innovative part — on the garage roof, there would be a park open to the public where the Theatre Garage would produce puppet shows and other performances.

As if reading my mind about the gateway thing, the developers of the project, which is to be called the Theatre Garage and Marquee Apartments (TGMA), in their preliminary proposal to the city’s Department of Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED), declared that the project “would transform the site into a more vibrant anchor for the intersection, establish a significant gateway into the neighborhood, as well as make the area more pedestrian friendly by replacing the current surface parking lot with more vibrant storefront.”  

For sure, Rudolphs and Mortimer’s have been around for decades, but the rest of what is now called “the built environment” is — for a gateway — pretty unwelcoming: a thrift store, a barber shop, the Theatre Garage’s rather unimposing marquee, a surface parking lot and a couple of retail outlets off in the southwest corner that these days include an art gallery and Chi Tailor & Cleaner.

According to Don Gerberding, founder and principal of Master, inspiration for the project — which has been under discussion for some time — came from the property owners, 2004 Real Estate Company (the Theatre Garage) and Theros (Rudolphs). “They wanted to put their properties to a higher and better use. Also, they both run businesses in the area, and they want to do something that will benefit the neighborhood.” They believe that it supports what the city needs, he adds: greater density on commercial corridors, housing in the city, walkable streets and good urban design.

Gerberding isn’t worried too much about the addition of 85 apartments to a city where complexes containing 100 and 200 units are popping up like mushrooms, both downtown and uptown. Although the vacancy rate for apartments in downtown Minneapolis has doubled to 4 percent in the past year, up from 1.9 percent, rents have remained high, according to Marquette Advisors Apartment Trends. And vacancy rates across the metro are only about 2.5 percent. Presumably, nobody has to worry about overbuilding until the rate tops 5 percent.

Units would cater to the neighborhood people

“These aren’t luxury apartments,” says Gerberding. “We are catering to people in the neighborhood.” And, he adds, there is still a shortage of housing in the area.

What seems more or as concerning as the project’s marketability is the neighborhood’s reaction to it. If a project requires zoning variances or conditional use permits, which is almost always the case in Minneapolis where complex zoning and overlapping district plans create a welter of regulations almost impossible to avoid violating, then CPED has to conduct a study, and the City Council’s Planning and Zoning Committe and the full Council have to approve. And, if a neighborhood group objects to the development, the council member representing the area may bow to pressure and vote “no” to the variances. Generally, as a courtesy, other council members go along, and the project dies.

So it went with a proposal to build a Trader Joe’s store on 27th and Lyndale two years ago; it required a deviation from regulations that would allow for a liquor store and increase retail space. The Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association (LHENA) objected that the store would alter the streetscape (which included a boarded-up restaurant), violate the Lyn-Lake Small Area Plan and increase traffic. The developer gathered 400 signatures in favor of the project, but its doom was already foretold. Meg Tuthill, then council member for the area, decided that she was against the deal, and the rest of the council voted with her.

TGMA requires the city to make a whole lot more exceptions to its arcane planning and zoning codes than the Trader Joe’s project. The site would have to be rezoned from C1 Neighborhood Commercial District, which allows only two-story buildings, to C2 Neighborhood Corridor Commercial District, which allows four-stories or buildings 56 feet high. Master would also have to win conditional use permits to allow for the parking garage, to increase the building height from 56 to 75 feet, to reduce setbacks from about 15 feet to 3, and to increase the permitted floor area ratio — the total floor area of the structure divided by the area of the lot it’s on. That’s a lot of grist for a neighborhood association to sink its teeth into should it want to keep things as they are.

‘Vigorous discussion’

The developer has already brought its plans to neighborhood groups for preliminary inspection. Burt Coffin, chair of LHENA’s planning and zoning committee, says that about 40 neighborhood residents showed up. “There’s a lot of interest,” he says, and “there was vigorous discussion.” Although he says the group isn’t ready to make any decision — the developer is returning next week for another presentation, some concerns did come up, that some setbacks were too narrow and that the building would “shadow” others in the area. Another worry was the rooftop garden. Would the amenity attract loiterers or muggers, and how would the building owner provide security to those using the parking garage?

It wasn’t all fuss and worry, however. “Some people said that the plan made good use of underutilized land,” says Coffin. “They think it’s an appropriate spot for more density.”

The Whittier Alliance, another neighborhood association whose territory lies to the south and east of LHENA, also heard from the developer. Did the proposal create excitement or concern?

“Both,” says Marian Biehn, the group’s executive director. “People anticipated that there would be development on that corner, and they had the usual worries about height and parking. But the common thread was that they want a building that is architecturally interesting, one that uses good materials” — in other words, a classy place. They will be hearing more from the developer on Monday night.

So it looks like everybody is in the loop — or almost everybody. Mor Moua, the proprietor of Chi Tailor & Cleaner, says that it was a customer who told her that the store she rents might be falling to the wrecking ball. “They should let me know so I can find a new place,” she says. Maybe she could get into one of the retail spaces in the new place, I suggested. That might be nice, she said, but building the new apartment house might take a year or two. “Where do I go in the meantime?” 

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/07/2014 - 09:01 am.

    Rare and unusual

    Hooray!! New residential in a “classy” building that’s *not* being hyped as “luxury” space. Kudos to the developer.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 03/07/2014 - 11:15 am.

    The area is already a collection of large, new apartment buildings–luxury and non-luxury. And all of them along Lake and Lyndale have under-utilized retail space on the street level.

    Before we continue in that now tired “new” style, why not spend some time and money on figuring why these retail spaces are typically not successful? (Hint–lease rates and space utilization requirements).

    Empty retail spaces on the street do nothing for the “friendliness” of street life or the creation of a “neighborhood”.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/07/2014 - 11:17 am.

    Not a bad idea but…

    These cookie cut designs keep popping up. I don’t know this style is called, but you see a lot, all the university area now for instance. Problem is, and I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think those buildings are going to age well, I think they will become dated very quickly.

    You can do brick, and it doesn’t even have to be real brick, you know that facing on the Well’s Fargo tower dowtown looks like stone of some kind but it’s actually some kind of styrofoam.

  4. Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 03/07/2014 - 01:57 pm.

    Can anyone

    point to a period of time where design wasn’t cookie cutter, extremely common? Or when current architectural trends weren’t mostly disliked by the general population? We all like brick so much, and want new buildings to also be brick (or brick look-alike, forgetting that many will come out stating that it’s a faux-look and belongs in Disney World), but also concerned about cookie-cutter, bland architecture? What if the entire city were brick? What colors of brick should we allow?

    Re: size.. so what’s the “right” size? The 4 to 4.5 story apartment buildings? Or the 2-3 story homes? Is there a cap on height? What will that do to housing supply (and therefore prices)? Ask San Francisco, I guess.

    I’m also confused, other than Blue’s main floor and Le Parisien’s ground floor and retail, what spaces are under-utilized? Is the greater Uptown area at a higher or lower than average (or healthy) commercial vacancy rate?

  5. Submitted by carter averbeck on 03/07/2014 - 02:02 pm.

    Change is good,..

    I am a small business owner in the area who has opened up a tiny retail boutique in the past year, just south of the proposed development on Lyndale. & Franklin. I see the area going through a gentrification and that is always a good thing in my book. My location is at the halfway point along the 10 block stretch from Franklin Ave to Lake St., and an unusual location to watch how each area is developing (or not).

    I see lots of good change and flourishing new businesses at Lyn/Lake where people are now walking around and starting to build a stronger community. This is not happening at the same level on Lyn/Franklin area and it would be nice to see something anchoring the corner.

    I welcome developments such as this that take the current neighborhood into account:,( i.e. affordable rents, keeping the theater in tact, adding a unique park setting). Whether or not one likes the overall design aesthetics of the building is up for subjectivity, but there’s no denying that this corner of the neighborhood would benefit from such change. My only hope is that the developer is smart about all aspects of this proposed plan: Not only keeping rents affordable, but also keeping commercial rents affordable as well so that there aren’t any vacant storefronts looming after the building is in place.

    After looking for a year in various neighborhoods where I could open up a business, I chose the Whittier neighborhood because it met all the requirements I needed: Affordable rent, good location and a neighborhood that has been supportive and progressive. I am proud to be a part of the area and to be able to offer great items to those who stop in. I am one of many who are putting their mark on gentrifying the area. Progress for a better life, better neighborhood and better community overall.

  6. Submitted by Michael Friedman on 03/07/2014 - 02:54 pm.

    Information lacking

    It’s obvious that the writer and the commenters have little information to work with besides what the developer says.

    The issues ultimately will not be to build something or build nothing, or neighborhood vs. city interest. The project as proposed is not in the city’s interest, just as the specifics of K-Mart on Nicollet was not in the city’s interest 40 years ago even if the premise of desiring some big retail was correct.

    A comment is not the space to provide developed arguments but here are a few notes:

    1) Rudolph’s wants to put a rooftop for private parties (in the same place as the alleged park), and the spin of puppet shows appears to be a public relations ploy to obscure that, given that Theater Garage has expended as much past energy on bringing puppet shows as it has in getting Cirque du Soleil or Prairie Home Companion to perform there.

    2) Not only is there a height variance but the proposal reduces the setback to only 3 feet from the property line (on Aldrich). Some apartments on Aldrich would have their primary window facing a six story building that’s closer than the length of a Toyota Prius. It is highly unusual not to INCREASE setback as a way to compensate for the impact of extra height, and this proposal does the opposite.

    3) Variances to construct parking capacity well beyond what is needed is oddly justified on the fact that we need to develop a prime public transit location. Adding such traffic is likely further congest existent bus service and overall lead to a net REDUCTION in public transit use (commuters to the south will start avoiding the bus).

    4) There is no affordable housing set aside. The developer contrasts with apartments marketed as luxury only because of not including certain building amenities. By including the garage, the developer intends to market to higher-paying renters who can afford cars. The city’s true interest with prime transit corridors is to leverage zoning and permits to produce mixed-income housing that allows those who cannot afford cars prime transit access (not to mention easy access to the Wedge co-op so as to ameliorate food desert issues for those of lesser means.)

    It’s good to develop a neglected spot, but not just to enrich the owners at the expense of city needs and adjoining properties. Planning professionals and those who support urban development need to restrain their enthusiasm for just any proposal and make sure the development is smart. So far, this fails. perhaps it can be revised.

    • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 03/07/2014 - 09:39 pm.

      In the interest of good public debate, a few counterpoints:

      0) There is a big difference between the government being the leader in mass clearing of neighborhoods to benefit businesses and individuals who choose to locate in car dependent areas and still utilize the spatial benefits dense cities provide by driving in. Comparing private development with no public dollars that is built within property lines to urban renewal projects of the past is disingenuous. Buildings of this scale exist in major cities all over the developed world and are natural by-products of incremental intensification. Unfortunately, most cities in the US skipped the middle-stages of small-parcel, vertical growth due to land-use regulations and incentivized sprawl.

      1) The public park idea has already been highly questioned by city staff as well as not pushed by the developer too hard. I agree that a public amenity with access through private property with security is a bad idea (see my position on skyways), so this rooftop patio, if implemented, should be privately managed and have adequate sound barriers along the edges. As a side note, the fact that public space was proposed in the first place is a by-product of the city’s own new regulations that require new space or money for parks: and we shouldn’t be surprised that regs like this may come with unintended consequences..

      2) There are examples all over this city of properties that come within 10 feet of each other (closer than the proposed building would come to neighboring ones). In fact, the 2 buildings just west of this proposal are 10-11 ft apart, with the southern one casting nearly perpetual shadows on lower units in the northern one. Additionally, there is no legal right to air, light, or views in this country. Perhaps we should respect our elders and build the way they used to.

      3) I agree that exceeding the parking calculated minimum for all retail, theater, and apartment space is disappointing. However, what is the alternative that will receive no neighborhood resistance? For years, parking minimums were continually enforced to keep would-be parkers out of incumbent on-street spaces. Further, I’ll make the case that a location like this is more than likely to attract people who will still commute to work by bus, foot, or bike. Despite the fact that the average number of cars available per apartment in LHE is 1.0 and number of cars per houses/condos is 1.3, only 60% of all people in the Wedge commute by car/truck/etc today. Even if 40-50% of new residents here do commute by car, they’ll likely do other tasks (groceries, etc) by foot. I think the bigger question to be asked to improve mode share of bikes/transit is the design of the public realm – bikes should get protected lanes, buses dedicated ones and better design at stations. Improve the frequency. People can park their cars and use them the rare times they want them. Fight this battle with the city.

      4) We need more market solutions to make housing affordable, not just forced inclusionary zoning. This means reducing price hiking regulations like parking minimums, unit sizes, etc. Developers can and should de-bundle housing prices from parking prices. In fact, many new developments are doing just that (charging $100+/mo for parking), though continued parking minimums keep some costs bundled in everyone’s rent (even if they’re not paying for a spot). We need to allow constant supply increases that lower overall housing prices. This building adding supply keeps units 1, 2, 3 miles down the road from experiencing the same price pressures they’d otherwise see, and that’s a good thing.

      Of course, it’s easy to disparage the developer by accusing them of greed. I would wager a bet that every building in the Wedge was built for profit by a developer looking to make money. What’s so different now? It’s also easy to forget that the developer is fulfilling a need in the marketplace. Good, nice, hardworking people who want to live in this neighborhood. The developer’s proposal (and yes, profit) represent the value they see in living here. Finally, it’s easy to focus on the perceived negatives of any development and ignore the positives. I don’t know what share of the new residents will drive vs. alternative, but I will guarantee it’s lower than if they lived in Eden Prairie or Maple Grove instead. I know that this building vastly improves the streetscape. It adds customers to local businesses. Those customers are less likely to drive home drunk. It proves that new development can and does support existing businesses (Rudolph’s, Theater Garage, and potentially more). I could go on. There’s a LOT to like.

  7. Submitted by Gary Thaden on 03/07/2014 - 04:35 pm.

    Lyndale & Franklin: Everybody is not in the loop!

    “It looks like everybody is in the loop.” Not. The neighbors behind the development are not on board. Their apartments and house would not see the sun again, due to the height of the proposal. With the large mass of the proposed building and the party deck (with a liquor sales) on the roof, the people behind the building, which would be 3 feet away, are concerned about noise. And, anybody who drives down Franklin or Lyndale should wonder how it is going to absorb all the cars generated by the development. The Wedge Co-op, directly across the street, already hires an off-duty police officer to handle traffic. Try standing at the site of the Lyndale exit from the building at 7:30 am and then tell us how dozens of cars are going to turn north when the line up of cars already goes another block south.

  8. Submitted by Janne Flisrand on 03/07/2014 - 07:31 pm.

    I want it.

    I’m a neighbor — a couple blocks away — and I think it looks great. Are there details that are imperfect? Probably. Is it a dramatic improvement from what’s there now? Unquestionably.

    The Wedge neighborhood association (LEHNA) had been saying for years, “We welcome density, on the EDGES of our neighborhood,” and that is precisely what this provides.

    I lie here because I like being in the city, I like the activity around me, and I like walking/biking/busing to interesting places. This will make a concrete improvement in my daily life, and I hope other neighbors of this project who want it, like I do, will let our elected officials know that the few panicked voices do not represent the majority.

  9. Submitted by Steven Bailey on 03/07/2014 - 08:01 pm.

    More traffic equals failure

    High density housing brings high density traffic. High density traffic makes people outside of the area not want to come there. People not coming through residential/commercial neighborhoods makes businesses fail. Failing businesses result in Cities no longer paying attention to an area. City ignored areas result in higher crime and middle and upper middle income flight. Middle and upper middle income flight result in low income affordable housing development, more ignored City services, and even fewer businesses (except for Payday loans, Pawn shops and Check Cashing Stores). All this results in failed neighborhoods which are great opportunities for new housing/commercial development.

  10. Submitted by David Koski on 03/08/2014 - 03:52 am.

    Wedge should recognize it is losing clout

    Funny, those opposed seem to bring up the Wedge Co-op. It looks as though that overpriced, schlocky, “health” food store is out of step with the times and the neighborhood. I actually support co-operatives, but not when their services do not match their mission and instead gouge the pocketbooks of those that want to do good. Its “grassroots” political organizing has grown old and weedy. Managing to tuck in parking is always a plus and you can bet the Wedge is slobbering all over for some of that space.
    The Wedgies may have been victorious in getting Trader Joe’s not to build in the neighborhood, which was highly unfair. They will and should lose when they are at odds with what is best for the community and they’ve exhausted their phony people power.

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