Tevlin: City Hall sides with not-ready-for-high-density Linden Hills

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 13, 2012 - 11:14 PM

The residents of Linden Hills fought developer Mark Dwyer in the fer-cute streets of their neighborhood, they fought him on the manicured front lawns with signs, they fought him on the Internet and in the city's planning division, but they finally won the battle where it mattered -- at City Hall.

When the Minneapolis Zoning and Planning Committee voted unanimously last week to block Dwyer's proposed five-story luxury condo building from one of the most coveted corners of town, the residents who spent uncounted time and (counted) money were delighted, exhausted and asking, What's next?

Even though Dwyer's plan had been passed by the Department of Community Planning and Economic Development in a 6-1 vote, City Council members were either so impressed by the community reaction, or so unimpressed by Dwyer's plan, that they shot it down, 13-doughnut.

Ouch.

Jane Prince, the lawyer hired by neighbors opposed to the 40-unit condo building, said she thinks the city's planners were so eager to promote "smart growth," or high-density development along the city's transit lines, that they fell so hard for Dwyer's Frankenstein that they didn't see the townsfolk with pitch forks coming down the road.

"When the staff report came out it was full of really strange interpretations of zoning codes," said Prince. "They are really enthusiastic about smart growth and saw this as an opportunity."

But Prince said they didn't fully consider that Linden Hills is contained by land and lakes, and the scale of the building wasn't justified on a one-route bus line. "I think what they were planning is more suited for a major transit corner," said Prince.

"I think Mark was taken down the wrong path," Prince added. "The city staff was jumping through all kinds of hoops to get this done."

As far as anyone knows, this was the first time a five-story building had been approved at the planning stage in an area zoned C1. Council members realized that if they set a precedent in Linden Hills, a fracas like this could be coming to their wards, too.

Developers generally gamble on wearing opponents down. Millions of dollars were at stake for Dwyer, but it didn't turn out to be enough to tamp down the domestic unrest and resolve of the upper-middle-class affection for quaint.

"It was really astonishing," Prince said of the efforts residents mounted to block the condo project.

One of those who led the charge was Chris Maddox, a soft- but well-spoken resident with a nice British accent who just wouldn't have some developer mucking about the place and clogging up the motorways. (Sorry.)

"What we did here is we kept reminding the deciders matters of fact," said Maddox. He and a core group of 10 to 20 neighbors were able to draw 600 people to a meeting two weeks before Christmas -- during a Vikings game --and got about 2,000 people to sign petitions against the plan.

Maddox understood why there were some criticisms that residents who would normally embrace density were saying "not in my back yard," but he said the NIMBY label doesn't fit. He said it was about the law and the process and that Linden Hills would embrace a creative idea for the corner "as long as it fits."

Kristin Tombers, owner of Clancy's Meat and Fish, certainly would. She was a vocal opponent of the project even though it would bring in new, wealthy customers.

"I think a great percentage of the neighborhood seem to be grateful of the voice and support I offered," said Tombers. "I feel I did the right thing."

But she said that given the overwhelming vote by the council, the process is deeply flawed in forcing neighbors and the developer into such a lengthy battle over a plan that clearly won't pass.

That's something Dwyer can agree on.

"There has to be a better way," Dwyer said. "The process wasn't good for us, for the neighbors or the planning commission. Nobody wins right now."

Dwyer said he's finally gotten the message -- and "learned a lot," perhaps enough to try another smaller plan.

"I think there is a real opportunity to create something people will like," he said.

jtevlin@startribune.com 612-673-1702

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