Building in this village difficult for developer, and for village

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 13, 2011 - 9:45 PM

Sunday afternoon was smack dab in the middle of the Christmas shopping season. The Minnesota Vikings were on television. Yet at Linden Hills Park, hundreds crowded an open house at the recreation center to read giant placards with such riveting headlines as: "Variances to Increase Portions of the 8-foot Setback."

One sign, put up by a potential condo developer, began: "It's hard to defend a perception ... an abstraction of what a village is ... good people will view things differently."

A few feet away, a small group of people seemed to be acting out the statement around a cardboard model of the neighborhood. It depicted an area surrounding the proposed five-story development for the corner where Famous Dave's now sits.

"The scale is wrong," said one man, pointing to the perceived difference between two model buildings several blocks apart. "It makes this [proposed] one look smaller."

A woman nearby shook her head. "It makes it look bigger."

A third woman offered that they looked different because one was on a small cardboard hill.

Welcome to Mark Dwyer's nightmare.

Not 20 feet from Dwyer's booth was the opposition, selling signs that read, "It Takes a Village to Keep a Village."

Dwyer is the developer, or at least point man, for the effort to build the condo in a neighborhood that wants to feel like one of those Dept. 56 Christmas villages, all cottage-y and boutique-y and quaint.

City ordinances built on an earlier survey of neighbors set the limit of buildings at three stories. The developers want a conditional use permit for five stories, to make the deal financially feasible. The issue will be heard by the neighborhood association's planning commission Monday. In January, city planning people and, eventually, the Minneapolis City Council are expected to make a decision.

The last time I visited this issue, Dwyer was launching a focus group to deconstruct the project and make suggestions. He called it community input. He moved the building back to decrease shadows, expanded a "pocket park" and added a fountain and drinking fountains, including one for dogs.

Linden Hills loves dogs.

But two things that were not on the table in the discussions were the condo's height and volume. For many, that was a deal killer. Meanwhile, residents elected new board members who were opposed to the project, making official endorsement difficult, while the business association -- headed by Dwyer -- approved it.

Bob Russell has lived a half-block from the corner for 46 years and calls the size "absolutely ludicrous." Russell says the concept "completely destroys the quaint, charming little village" atmosphere.

Russell thinks the passionate response in Linden Hills should be a warning to future developers that "we are keeping an eye on things."

To Chris Maddox, a project detractor recently elected to the neighborhood board, "as an exercise in democracy," the turnout made him think, "what a community."

While those opposed to the project have been very vocal, those who support it have not. One who has is Lynette Lamb, who lives three blocks from the corner. Her husband is disabled from a stroke, and while she's not sure they would buy a unit, she thinks it's important to have that kind of housing available in Linden Hills.

"I have neighbors in their 60s and 70s who also would like to stay in the neighborhood," said Lamb. "It's important to have housing for more ages and stages of life than for just middle-aged families with kids and a dog."

She also favors it for environmental reasons.

"If you live in a city neighborhood it's best to have housing as dense as possible," said Lamb. "People can use mass transit and live close instead of spreading out to the suburbs."

After the open house, Dwyer seemed beat: A conditional use permit is part of the normal building process, not a "violation" of current ordinances, he said. Opponents have spread misinformation. The neighborhood needs a boost.

I asked Dwyer how he felt about his chances. The novice developer, who says this is his first and last project, sighed.

"A lot of people want to live here," he said. "Most of them empty nesters from Linden Hills." There's interest for a ground-floor restaurant and commercial space. But, he admits, "consensus around a project like this is impossible."

Lamb and others say the issue has put neighbors at odds with each other and caused tension between friends, neighbors and business owners.

"My 14-year-old daughter doesn't agree with me," said Lamb.

It may, indeed, take a village to save a village. But if your concept of a village is a community that gets along, it may be that it also takes a village controversy to raze a village.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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