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Minneapolis council committee upholds approval of project slated for Sons of Norway site

A rendering of the Sons Of Norway north building.
Weidner Investment Services
A rendering of the Sons Of Norway north building.

A Minneapolis city council committee has rejected a neighborhood appeal of the approval for an apartment and office complex at the Sons of Norway site in Uptown.

The city’s Zoning and Planning Committee made the decision at its regular meeting Thursday, and while much of the testimony about the project was in opposition, the proposal also drew supporters. In fact, some of the same elements that drew concerns from neighbors attracted praise from supporters, including the size, the height, and the density.

The committee vote wasn’t unexpected. Neighborhood opponents, including the East Calhoun Community Organization, had made similar arguments at the Planning Commission Jan 22 — and met with a similar lack of success.

The project, led by Ryan Companies with Wiedner Apartment Homes, is for 317 apartments, restaurant space plus a new home for the Sons of Norway. It would also have 320 parking spaces and a 10,000 square-foot green space with a water feature that will be called The Fjord and be available to the public.

The project would be built on property now holding a handful of buildings plus lots of surface parking that is bordered by Lake Street, 31st Street, Humboldt Avenue and Holmes Avenue. The site sits one block from the commercial intersection of Lake Street and Hennepin Avenue and just four blocks from Bde Maka Ska.

That makes the project something that the city sees as important, part of an effort to further densify one of its densest, most-urban neighborhoods. But it is also represents what neighbors fear is an encroachment of multi-family housing into what has been an area of single-family homes and duplexes.

While many of the opponents spoke of traffic, high rents, corporate exploitation of the neighborhood and pedestrian safety, the issues before the planning and commission and council were legal and technical. Ryan was asking for land use permissions, including the rezoning of part of the site for more-intense multi-family development and the issuance of a variance to increase the amount of the available land it could build on.

The leader of those seeking to halt the project, Lara Norkus-Crampton, kept mostly to those issues. That the project needs so many land-use changes indicates just “how far out from the intention of the underlying zoning that this project is and how many exceptions to the zoning have to work to make it happen.”

Much of the concern was about how the project will affect 31st Street, which is shared with many single-family homes. The city’s 2008 small area plan envisioned buffers to ease new developments into the existing neighborhood.

Erika Brask, who lives with her family near the project, she said she worries for her daughter’s safety on streets that are already busy. “I stand here today despite being told how hopeless it would be,” Brask said. “How my voice wasn’t going to be heard. But nevertheless, I will persist.

“This is so far out of proportion,” she said. “I hope that you truly can look beyond parcels and zones and lots and masses and density and buildings and see the buffer that we really need between the commercial corridor and legitimate, real families.”

Dane Stimart, who also lives near the project site, said the council action would set a global precedent. “I have no doubt that if this current Sons of Norway project is approved, that your decision will signal to these global profit-driven development firms looking to laugh past our thoughtfully created community zoning and density balance,” he said. Approval would send the signal that “our community and our city are for sale to the highest bidder.”

But many supporters of the project also showed up for the hearing. One, Joe Huber, pointed out the project was initiated by a longtime local institution, the Sons of Norway, and that Ryan is locally based as well. Huber complimented both organizations on their community outreach and said the project fits in with a dense, urban neighborhood.

“A lot of people discussed the traffic that this development will cause and, yes, there is traffic in Uptown,” he said. “We live in the city and that is the price you pay to live in a vibrant area.”

Huber also looked more broadly at how the region will accommodate population growth, saying he prefered it in dense areas of the cities rather than as part of suburban sprawl.

When it came time to vote, Council President Lisa Bender, whose Ward 10 includes Uptown, said the underlying zoning would have only allowed 38 units on the parcel that reaches to 31st Street while the Ryan plan places 155 in that section.

“This is probably one of the most-desirable neighborhoods in Minneapolis,” she said, complimenting it for the amenities and walkability.

A rendering of the Sons Of Norway south building.
Weidner Investment Services
A rendering of the Sons Of Norway south building.

But she also noted that the site is large and underused. “It’s a surface parking lot in the middle of the city. We knew it was going to redevelop,” Bender said. “The big question is how many people get to live here.”

At the previous density, a project would likely have been one of fewer but far-more-expensive homes, she said. “I can’t in good conscience as an elected official of the city of Minneapolis force a developer to build multi-million dollar homes in this location,” Bender said.

Single-family homes are getting more expensive but many of the units in the proposed building are two-bedroom and could accommodate families. “This will allow some more options in a neighborhood with so many amenities,” she said.

Council Member Lisa Goodman opposed the project, not for its size and density on Lake Street but for how it treats 31st Street. Yes, Goodman said, 38 units there is too few but 155 is too many based on the small area plan. The proposed building is five stories, and across the street from houses.

“I don’t think it is really open to interpretation that five stories stepping down to two is not a graceful stepping down that the small area plan suggested,” Goodman said.

She called those small area plans a contract with the neighbors. “If this building was one story less I probably would support it,” Goodman said.

The final decision is made by the full council on Feb. 23, but it is rare that the council reverses a decision made by its zoning committee.

REX 26 decision upheld

At the same meeting, the zoning committee upheld another planning commission decision: the denial of changes sought by a developer of apartments and an ALDI grocery store at Lyndale and 26th. The developer had sought a larger floor area ratio — essentially the amount of usable space in the structure — in order to add 11 apartments to the building named for a former hardware store on the site.

The council agreed with the commission, which felt the developer sought to return to a project that had been rejected earlier. The need for the additional apartments was driven by economics rather than practical or site-specific considerations. That is, changes in design for ALDI increased the building’s cost making additional rental units necessary.

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Comments (16)

If this modest building required a rezoning...

If this modest building required a rezoning, then we have some serious work to do upzoning Minneapolis to allow more housing. 317 units in a 6 story building is good, but Hennepin between Uptown and Bde Maka Ska could host thousands more residents in mid-rise developments like this and even highrise developments along Lake or Lagoon.

The shame here is how anti-housing our current zoning code is. Time to change it.

Re-Zoning

I don't know if R4 or R6 zoning for this parcel is right. But I am tired of developers acquiring a parcel and then saying they need a variance or changes in zoning to make the project economical (without defining what that means). The zoning rules and small area plans (which Lisa Goodman rightly calls a contract with the neighborhood) are known and discoverable BEFORE a developer commits to a project. We see this for various projects on the NW corner of Bde Maka Ska, Rex 26, and a proposed project on the east side of Bde Maka Ska. We need to have a full blown, full throated discussion on what zoning is appropriate where. We need to have everyone who has an interest to contribute. And we need to have elected officials decide. Once we have that then everyone plays by the rules with no chance for a variance. We don't need to effectively change our zoning piecemeal without everyone getting a voice. If people don't like the result they can vote our council members.

And before we get excited about transforming Lake Street (which is I assume what Mr. Steele meant and not Hennepin) into an area with thousands more residents I think there are a couple of things to consider. First, unlike, NYC, Chicago, or Boston, Minneapolis does not have a fully built out and dynamic public transportation system. Our bus system continues to shrink and those trying to build fixed rail can't seem to convince people they know what they're doing. Without that, thousands more residents trying to get to work and play by car will make the area extremely congested and less appealing. Second, while everyone realizes things change (the people opposing this development don't oppose density just this significant jump from its current zoning) current residents who have made personal and economic choices should have some say in what their neighborhood looks like. And a response of "If they don't like it they can move" isn't a solution, it's a judgement.

"Legitimate, real families"

Let's also call out how awful this comment by Erika Brask was. There will be hundreds of "legitimate, real families" living in this new development, families she wishes to exclude from housing through her support of exclusionary zoning.

All Are Welcome

It’s so interesting when I hear comments like this that seem to paint ECCO neighbors as exclusionary, elite, old, rooted, fearful of change, or priveledged. I moved my family to this neighborhood in 2016 from Denver, where it is so expensive that most school teachers can’t afford to rent or buy a home. We have a wonderful, vibrant community that includes Lake Street and Hennepin Ave, Bde Maka Ska and access to the Greenway. We have Neighbors of many colors, backgrounds, and income levels. This is not an exclusionary neighborhood. This was not a statement advocating exclusivity.

There is a misunderstanding that if one opposes the project at all, one must be anti-development, anti-growth, anti-renter, anti-change. That is not, and was not ECCO’s position, nor is it mine.

My comment to the City Council was, in fact, advocating for all families who already struggle to live, walk, park, drive, and enjoy this neighborhood, regardless of home type (which, by the way, is 70% rental). Anyone who chooses to live in our neighborhood is wholeheartedly welcomed. I know because I have seen it and I participate in welcoming others.

This comment (taken wonderfully out of context by Matthew Steele) was urging the CMs to consider the impact of so much additional density on our neighborhood pedestrian safety, which is already an issue. I was asking them to consider the long-term impact on all of us — especially rent prices for my fellow neighbors. I was urging the CMs to step outside of the terms and scope of the project and see how it will impact real people (even those who would be new). The emotion I feel as a mother, trying to protect my kids as they cross the street with no crosswalks, and ride their bikes with increased vigilance — is a concern that seems to be getting worse, not better with this project. And I was not alone in voicing those concerns.

If you choose to raise a family in a 500-sq ft apartment for $2K/month, good for you! I hope our kids ride bikes together and we work together to keep them safe in a neighborhood where pedestrian safety is a legitimate issue, while our CMs boast walkability. You would be invited to join our neighborhood block parties, and Labor Day Parade, and urged to get involved in our neighborhood Board to see if maybe your voice could make a difference. Why don’t you stop by sometime, Matthew, and see what it’s like to live here before ... and after the project? There’s a sign out front that says All Are Welcome Here. It’s not Bullshit. (Ok, except maybe solicitors).

Real, legitimate families

Nice words. I will give you the benefit of the doubt. But then what does the phrase “real, legimate families” mean? Because they sure sound like code words for white, married with kids, straight, upper middle income. If that’s not what you were referring to then who in your mind are real, legimate families? Because they can come in all ages, colors, family composition, etc.

Context and intention

Was I nervous? OhmygodYES. Did I have a prepared speech? No, I didn’t. I tried to speak from the heart and in that portion of my statement, the intention was to move the focus away from the language of non-human “zones” and “parcels,” etc., back to the concerns the people brought forth. In the moment, “Real People” would have been sufficient. Being overcome with emotion and nerves, I had lots of words swirling around my head. I mixed up and condensed “real people and legitimate pedestrian concerns for families with kids.” With the two-minute clock counting down, I pulled the words I did. I am not a politician and I have no desire whatsoever to be one. People see what they want to see. If I were an elitist, closed-minded person who didn’t care about diversity, I wouldn’t have any reason to stand up for myself, defend my statement, and offer my perspective. I never meant to be exclusive or offensive. My intention was opposite and I’m sorry if my nervous blunder offended anyone. Luckily, I know who I am and what I stand for, even if the readers see me differently.

I will add that the units in this project are not about diversity or affordability. It is the developers who are catering to a certain demographic of affluence. Read the proposal and you’ll find these units will drive up rent prices in Uptown, squeeze out affordable housing for those who live here and already struggle to make rent as prices continue to rise.

Real people

I'm not sure substituting "legitimate, real families" for "real people" makes the sentiment any better. Are the hundreds of people who will have a place to live once this project is complete not real people?

Finally, the units here will be quite affordable compared to the single family houses in the immediate neighborhood which often sell for a half million dollars or more. If anything, those who own housing in the immediate neighborhood while attempting to restrict the supply of housing are engaging in what economists call "rent-seeking behavior." It artificially reduces supply and raises rents, decreasing affordability. Increasing housing supply lowers equilibrium prices (the rents people pay) thereby increasing affordability.

Matthew, in the context of

Matthew, in the context of trying to steer language away from “zones” and “parcels,” I think “real people” would have made the point without controversy. It’s easy to judge me for being just that — a real person, standing before the committee, fumbling my words. I didn’t comment on newspaper articles or grumble to my neighbors. I took action and followed the process to affect change. My humanity was exposed and although I appreciate the questioning and commentary of the intention behind my words, it seems I could spend a lifetime trying to satisfy some who just want to direct outrage my way. And the truth is, I have more important work to do.

I didn’t stand before the committee asking for the development to be stopped. I asked for consideration for one building to be smaller to fit our small area plan, which aligns more closely with CM Goodman. Considering what many neighbors pay in rent in the neighborhood ($800/1000 sq ft), I’m not sure how twice the rent for half the space is affordable in this new plan. Other than Goodman, the CMs offered no push-back on the developers to make modifications and compromise with the neighborhood. I know there will be plenty of people who can afford to pay for these new units. As I already stated, All Are Welcome Here.

If you’re looking for perspective with an open mind, that’s one thing. If you’d like to visit the neighborhood, let me know. I live less than a block from the site. But if you want to fight just to fight, well, I’m not interested. I have solutions to work on.

"All are welcome here"

Quite a few people in my St. Paul neighborhood had "all are welcome here" and "stop the Ford Site" signs together in their yards. They could have combined the signs to say "All are welcome to live somewhere else not by me." Or just "Not in my backyard."

This shouldn't be controversial

And, ultimately, it wasn't. But we shouldn't have to fight over putting medium scale development in the heart of Uptown. And it shouldn't require rezoning.

Never Forget the Street Parking!

People leave Minneapolis to take long weekends to congested cities; charming cities devoid of surface parking lots and very few open parallel parking spots.

I wish I didn't have to leave Minneapolis to find fun in Chicago or Denver. Instead it can be in my backyard. This is about making a cool part of the city available to more people. Density is great! Mr. Moran from the Kenwood-Isle Neighborhood association is lucky to live in a part of the city where instead of single-story retail going in, such as in Lynnhurst south of Lake Harriet, he's getting new retail built out and new residents to help keep those new businesses profitable and thriving.

These are amenities that we all wish we could walk to.

Additionally, bus lines are also easily modified to address needs, and is done on a fairly regular basis in Minneapolis.

Hideousness

What an incredibly hideous building, particularly so when the Sons of Norway is a dignified, memorable piece of modern architecture. The round pavilion is not bad, but its design is. This will desecrate the city. It looks like a cheap three-story apartment building from the 1970s inflated. The city has to hold builders to much higher esthetic standards. It's not a cost issue, it's a taste issue. This is the kind of building that keeps Minneapolis mediocre.

Subjective

I think the building looks just fine. I realize that tastes differ and change over time, but I'm pretty sure this will not desecrate the city.

People who worry about the

People who worry about the project bringing increased traffic forget something.

That is, the proposed new building is within walking distance of every kind of store a human being might possibly need, as well as several restaurants, two movie theaters, a couple of gyms, a medical clinic, and probably some things I haven't spotted yet. It is also within walking distance of a transit center serving lines that go downtown, to Southdale, to 50th and France, to Linden Hills, to St. Louis Park and beyond, to Hopkins, down Lake Street to St. Paul, and, at certain times of the day, to the U.

In other words, it would be a great location for anyone who wanted to live car-free or "car-lite."

In other neighborhoods without the amenities of Uptown, an apartment building of that size might lead to increased traffic, but assuming that this project would have underground parking, it may not clutter up the neighborhood as the current residents fear.

The only downside is that the project may be yet another example of a building full of tiny, thin-walled apartments with Pullman kitchens in the living room (but with granite countertops!!) renting for $1500 and up.

The false premise underlying many arguments about density

There is a false premise underlying just about every argument I have heard about density: that added people means added danger. This premise is born from a lack of broad experience and a high degree of provincialism.

People who have lived high-density areas - like in Europe or Asia or small pockets of urban America- see a greater degree of mobility and independence among those that the US's subsidized low-density ideology punishes: the very old and the very young. Taking advantage of robust public transportation and pedestrian-friendly design (clustered small scale businesses and public amenities rather than big box store footprints and vast surface parking lots) the options available to the young and old broaden their lives immeasurably.

Increased traffic leads to increased awareness of traffic and therefore increased safety. It's when drivers and pedestrians are distracted that accidents are most likely to occur. Kids adapt well to increased traffic, as my visit to Amsterdam last fall amply demonstrated: I was amazed at the number of kids in the crowds of people going about their daily business. These kids were autonomous, capable, mature, etc. and certainly didn't require the patronizing attitude we see so often in these discussions.

In short, the fear-based argument that increased traffic means increased danger for children or pedestrians has no empirical basis. In fact, on the whole dense development disproportionately benefits children and other pedestrians by putting more options in their range.

False Premise

Part of the objection to density may be increased danger. I think when you add more people and more cars (which I think will happen, given our poor public transport system) you increase the chance of accidents happening. Can children and pedestrians adapt? Sure, but I'm not so sure of drivers, I don't think anyone would characterize MPLS's transit system as "robust." Anytime someone wants to add to the system (either fixed rail, BRT, or just basic bus service) there is great resistance to funding it ("people who use it should pay for it"). Without transit--and without transit that quickly and efficiently gets you somewhere else besides downtown MPLS--mobility won't increase for the very old or very young.

But I don't think the objection is simply increased danger. As much as some may not like it, most housing south of uptown is single family or small multifamily. And most of these homes aren't new--that's the way the city developed, with builders meeting people's needs. The objection to this development wasn't density--it was the necessity to change the zoning for one of the parcels and to ignore the small area plan developed years ago. People and developers may think these are outdated and need to be changed, and we should probably have that discussion so that everyone has a chance to make their voices heard. But changing the zoning code piecemeal does no one any good, developers or residents. People who have made an economic and emotional commitment to a neighborhood should have a say (not the final say, but certainly some say) in how that neighborhood changes.