The boy’s mother pulled up a chair for him to speak in front of the Edina City Council. “I don’t like skyscrapers,” he read slowly from a sheet of paper. “No more traffic. I like trees.”
He may have been the youngest to oppose a proposed development in the city, but he’s not the only one. As Edina leaders consider a stream of projects taller and denser than what guidelines recommend, residents have been showing up by the hundreds at council meetings to block them.
The council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a proposed seven-story, 135-unit building near Southdale Center, a project that would require amending the city’s height and density requirements. Several other projects are expected to go before the council this summer, as well, furthering the debate on development in Edina.
Council Member Kevin Staunton expressed exhaustion after a hearing in May on the proposal, which would be built at 7250 France Av. At that hearing, residents of the Lake Cornelia and South Cornelia neighborhoods west of France Avenue argued against the tower.
“Your arbitrary push for density and height will break the city neighborhood pact,” one man said. “Why build for others at the expense of current Edina residents?”
“Our neighborhood has been able to preserve its residential character,” another said. “However, our perception is that that valued heritage is now being threatened.”
Staunton said that it was frustrating to hear residents say the city has wrecked the neighborhood “when I feel like I’ve kind of gone to bat for the neighborhood.” He added: “We’re in a real changing time.”
Decades in the making
Council Member Mike Fischer said he got into some trouble when he called Edina an “urbanized area” in a magazine article earlier this year. But in some ways, he said, the urbanization of Edina has been decades in the making.
Southdale, the first enclosed mall in the nation, was designed by architect Victor Gruen to draw people out of their “car-centric” lives to shop and socialize. It’s adjusted as retail shopping has changed, adding different tenants that include a specialty hardware store and a fitness center. Gruen’s original vision, Fischer said, may be closer to fruition than it was when the mall opened back in 1956.
“Everything about the mall is turning itself inside out. So as that evolves, the whole district has to evolve so we keep it healthy and keep it vibrant and keep it relevant,” he said.
To Fischer, that means bringing in more people. Districts such as Greater Southdale, 44th Street and France Avenue near the Morningside neighborhood, and 70th Street and Cahill Road are areas open for new housing and retail.
The City Council recommended capping heights at 7250 France at four stories in 2008. Fischer said he didn’t know how that site could be redeveloped at that height “and make it economically viable.”
But residents in the nearby Lake Cornelia and South Cornelia neighborhoods are demanding that the council oppose any proposals that require amending size requirements before the city updates its comprehensive plan later this year.
“They should be very, very cautious to approve anything that’s outside of our current comprehensive plan,” said Bruce McCarthy, chairman of the Lake Cornelia Neighborhood Association.
Council members, for the most part, sympathize.
“We need a greater degree of certainty about where we’re going, and we need to do a better job of articulating what we’re trying to accomplish,” Staunton said.
‘They like it the way it is’
The 7250 France proposal has already gone through a slew of redesigns by DJR Architecture. It began as a set of residential towers connected by a pedestrian bridge over France Avenue; the final design is much smaller, with everything on one site. But opposition remains.
“It’s just too much for that site. And it’s going to loom over the neighborhood,” said Nora Davis, a community organizer for Lake Cornelia who has lived there for 40 years.
Many residents are concerned about traffic, which they say has spiked and trickled into residential sections. “I can’t even fathom the traffic and the craziness that’s going to happen with this building going up,” one said at the May council meeting.
City officials disagree. Traffic in the Southdale area has decreased over the last 20 years, from an average of 14,500 vehicles a day on 70th Street west of France in 1996, to 9,200 in the same area in 2015, according to city numbers. A study done for the 7250 France project concluded that existing roads could support more traffic.
Fischer said there is a tendency for people to equate height with traffic. The Shake Shack restaurant that was recently approved on a corner of Southdale, he said, is more likely to add traffic in the area than a tall apartment building. “No one’s complaining about that,” he said.
Both council members and residents say that a tall building should respect the character of the nearest neighborhoods through transitions, whether with green space or fewer stories on the side facing the homes.
Neighbors agree something should be done with the 7250 France Avenue site, where an office building and a crumbling underground parking garage currently stand. “I am very pro-development,” McCarthy said. “We just want to see it a certain kind of way.”
Staunton said plans for development should be innovative and flexible, but also predictable enough to avoid angering residents. Finding the sweet spot, he said, is what the city needs to figure out.
“We have a community where people like it here and they’re comfortable here,” Staunton said. “It’s a high bar to persuade people that it’s going to get better, because they like it the way it is.”