Monday, July 25, 2011

Developer's Plans Stir Debate in Small Community

I have often wondered about the impact of new housing and retail developments on older, established neighborhoods. How much input do residents have if opposed? Is compromise sometimes possible? Can developments be stopped?

I was recently prompted to ask these questions first-hand after learning of a proposal to build a five-story commercial/residential building in my community of Linden Hills in Minneapolis.

After reading about the project, known as Linden Corner, I attended a meeting of local residents opposed to the development and discovered that their views were broadly in line with my own; I also wanted to hear from the developer, Mark Dwyer, who lives in the area.

I contacted Dwyer and told him that although I was opposed to his plans, I would appreciate hearing his perspective and thoughts. He agreed to meet me.

Dwyer explained that what is being proposed is a five-story retail and residential development with plans to include approximately 34 condominiums, a restaurant, as well as a handful of businesses.

At present, the proposed site is zoned for buildings no taller than three stories in height and Dwyer is seeking a variance--or conditional use permit--to override this. Further, there’s an additional layer of regulations that was drawn up by local residents and businesses over a decade ago to protect the character and image of the area.

An affable man with a pleasant manner, Dwyer believes his plan makes economic sense for Linden Hills, in part due to the departure of the previous anchor tenant. He either owns the existing buildings at the proposed site (43rd and Upton) on a contract for deed, or has options to buy. But can he sell his plan to the community, I wondered.

Dwyer says he is sensitive to the aesthetic of Linden Hills but insists that five stories are necessary economically. “There is just a small group of people who are opposed,” he said.

My own observation differs drastically as I see a groundswell of opinion against his plans.

I asked how he might react if a petition (which I know to be circulating the area) were presented containing the signatures of a significant number of residents. “Opposition is important and healthy and informs opinion. We believe we are bringing the solution that has the best balance,” he said. “Change will happen in the face of opposition. It balances needs and wants. If there is an alternative that’s better, I’m not aware of one.”

I believe that the majority of people wouldn’t have an issue with a three-story structure. So why not build within the current zoning? “A three-story building isn’t a marketable property. Five stories drive the revenue, and it can’t be built smaller,” he replied.

This leads me to speculate that if scale and economy are linked, if this is the only way for the project to be financially viable, and if that doesn’t match what the community wants, then perhaps something somewhere is wrong.

If Dwyer is convinced this development will benefit the area, another resident, Kristin Tombers, owner of Clancey’s Meats, has a different point of view. She believes that the independent owner/operator businesses currently prevalent in the area reflect the “charming, small and village-like” feel of the business district.

“A large, cold commanding structure will be at extreme odds with the community’s current personality, no matter how thoughtfully or tastefully executed," she said.

“The beauty, charm and magic of Linden Hills will be lost for the people who love it here and the businesses of today will be gone forever to the commerce of the future. Whose future and well-being, then, are we talking about?”

Nor does Tombers view this project as inevitable and even has some creative alternatives for the corner. She alludes to the possible availability of grant money to make this an “urban green space” and “something innovative, inspiring, and responsible for all our interests, not just a select few.”

The developer’s website gives details of a local design team that has employed many features tailored to the aesthetics of the community, but I can’t get past the sheer size (both in height and length) that I feel is so wrong for the area. As someone said to me the other day, the reason Linden Hills has remained quaint and charming is because it is the total opposite of what this proposed development represents.

I think it is a false assumption to think that a small community will not be affected by a giant complex like this at its heart. I am also concerned about the types of businesses that will fill the retail spaces. Will they be national chains or will they be small locally-owned businesses? Linden Hills' pedestrian-friendliness would be overwhelmed by a development on this scale.

I appreciate the efforts made to reach out to the community, and I don't even mind the design, but for me the bottom line is the size of the project. It would tower over the area.

But if there is a Plan B, in the event that an override to the existing regulations cannot be obtained, I am sure many people in the community would love to have a voice in any future plans.

I love the small town feel of this community. It is unique, has character, and is unlike so many other places because of that. I am in favor of responsible development and believe the existing zoning should be respected. Overriding that would set a precedent for other developers wishing to build taller than permitted buildings in the area.

There are a lot of other issues associated with the Linden Corner development, and I have only covered some of them. Please check out the resources below for more information.

Finally, I'd like to point out that the opinions expressed in this article are my own. I state this only because I have spoken with other residents who share similar views.

Linden Hills Neighborhood Council
Developer's Website
Neighborhood Opposition Facebook Page
Neighborhood Opposition Website
Developer's Facebook Page