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Lyndale & Franklin: New hope for a neglected intersection

Master, a Minneapolis development and engineering firm, has proposed a somewhat innovative six-story apartment complex.

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.
Courtesy of the City of Minneapolis

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.

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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.

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‘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?”