The Edina City Council gave the go-ahead Tuesday night to a disputed housing project for homeless youths in the southwest metro suburbs.
In a pair of unanimous votes, the council agreed to amend its comprehensive plan and rezone a property to allow the 66 West project to move forward.
The $9 million project would create 39 studio apartments in an existing TCF Bank building off W. 66th Street in the Southdale area. It’s sponsored by St. Paul-based Beacon Interfaith Housing Collaborative, a group of 50 congregations working to end homelessness in the Twin Cities.
“This council has recognized that we need to take some real action,” said Council Member Josh Sprague, calling the vote “a tangible step forward as well as a symbolic step forward.”
“These are our kids,” added Council Member Mary Brindle.
Supporters of the project hope it will create more stories like that of 19-year-old Thomas Stone. Stone spent much of his youth in foster homes in north Minneapolis, where he was often bullied and forced to fight. He escaped to the streets, where he slept on benches or in garages.
Now he’s lived for the past nine months at Nicollet Square, a Beacon project in Minneapolis that’s similar to the 66 West proposal. He works as a computer technician, pays $204 a month for his apartment and has completed course work at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.
“They tell us, ‘This is temporary, and we’re going to force you to find something better,’ ” Stone said before the meeting. “And that’s what I like about it.”
After the meeting, Lee Blons, executive director of Beacon, praised the council members. “We are absolutely grateful to the City Council for their welcome to young people without a stable home,” she said. “We look forward to working with them to make this the best project in Edina.”
More than 150 supporters of the project, dressed in green and sporting “Yes to youth housing!” buttons, had packed the council chamber and overflowed into the City Hall lobby Tuesday night. They broke into applause after the council voted 5-0 in favor of 66 West on both questions.
The show of support was organized by more than a half-dozen church congregations in Edina and Richfield, as well as the Beacon Collaborative.
“Young people should not be sleeping in port-a-potties,” said Miriam Rickert, an Eden Prairie resident who attends good Samaritan United Methodist in Edina.
During the public comment period of the meeting, 20 people came forward in support of the project, while eight spoke against.
Supporters stressed the moral need to address suburban youth homelessness. The proposed project, they said, is perfectly positioned near jobs and public transportation. What’s more, it meets Edina’s stated goal of providing more affordable housing.
Speakers in support of the project included the Rev. Ann M. Svennungsen, bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and state Sen. Melisa Franzen, who represents Edina and is a resident.
Jeanette Augustson, whose Arden Avenue home was destroyed in a gas explosion four years ago, spoke of the support her family received after the incident left them homeless.
“Let’s show that the support extends to everyone,” she said.
Many opponents agreed that the goals of the project are worthy but said this one isn’t a proper use within Edina’s burgeoning regional medical district.
“I would highly urge you to not get caught in the emotion,” said Dr. M. Elizabeth Briden, who practices in the area.
This would be the first apartment complex dedicated to serving the southwest metro’s homeless youths, a group that officials estimate at 250 in the Bloomington-Richfield-Edina area.
Anne Mavity, director of new projects for Beacon, said youth homelessness in the Hennepin County suburbs increased by 27 percent between 2005 and 2011.
Even with Tuesday’s positive votes, 66 West must go through one more round of final approvals from the Planning Commission and City Council.
However, Edina planning officials said it’s almost unheard of for a project to receive preliminary endorsement and not get final approval.
Even if the project clears all hurdles, it could be some time before it was up and running. Beacon, which has been working to acquire the bank building, would then have to seek funding to operate the project. Sources could include money from the state and county, federal low-income housing tax credits, and rental assistance from groups such as the Metropolitan Council. Edina Community Lutheran Church has already committed $80,000 toward the project, and several churches in Edina and Richfield also pledged support.
Project planners are hoping for a major grant from the Minnesota Housing Finance Authority. The state legislature this year authorized more than $100 million in bonds for affordable housing projects.
The 39 studio apartments would range in size from 355 to 456 square feet. The site would also have offices, a community area for residents, a fitness room, a computer lab and laundry. Supporters say the location also offers easy access to public transit, and entry-level retail and medical jobs nearby.