Plans for a midrise apartment building in Minnetonka have set off a debate about density in the west metro suburb after a split City Council denied plans last week for the six-story building near the Ridgedale Center, saying it’s too dense and tall for the city.

In a surprising move to Minnetonka neighbors who opposed the project, the City Council voted 4-3, rejecting the plans. It was a project all seven council members agreed would set a precedent for extensive redevelopment that’s expected in the Ridgedale area over the next two decades to draw people to the area for more than just shopping much like St. Louis Park’s West End and Edina’s Southdale Center area.

“When I look at the renderings, it looks like a building on steroids — the height, the mass, the minimum setbacks,” Tim Bergstedt, one of the four council members who voted against the project, said at the Oct. 27 meeting. “But if we follow our vision, I hope what Minnetonka will eventually present will set us apart from the West End, will set us apart from Southdale.”

Plans called for tearing down the three-story Highland Bank off Cartway Lane and Plymouth Road and build a six-story midrise with 120 apartments, underground and surface parking, and 16,000 square feet of retail that included a bank, coffee shop and restaurant.

“We feel that this is a pretty important project for our transformation of Ridgedale,” City Planner Loren Gordon told the council before the vote. “We believe that this project will set a tone; it’s different from what is there today.”

The concept plans, proposed by Bader Development and Paster Properties, got City Council approval this summer and then, both city staff and the Planning Commission recommended final approval for the project, leading many residents to expect the City Council to give it the green light. But after more than three hours of discussion and presentations, a majority of the council echoed residents’ concerns about the building’s height, footprint and density being too much for Minnetonka, with only three council members supporting the project and four against it. Messages left with the developers were not returned.

Setting a precedent

The project would have been among the first redevelopment projects for the area — part of a vision the city has for transforming the Ridgedale area between now and 2035 to include things like dense apartments, an upscale movie theater, restaurants, a parkway, more trails and green spaces for events and festivals. It’s all to draw people to the area and make it more walkable. But how dense is too dense?

“This is a big change to what we have in Minnetonka,” said Patty Acomb before casting a vote in support, “but I think it’s a change that’s beneficial.”

Tony Wagner, who represents the ward where the bank is located, also cast a supportive vote for the project, saying he wasn’t concerned about the density of the building, but said increased traffic would need to be dealt with. Both he and Mayor Terry Schneider, who also voted in support, said the building was a high quality and would add to the area. Bob Ellingson, who voted against the project, agreed, but said it needed to be scaled down.

“Is there a different way to configure the building? It doesn’t have to be a four-story building; that’s one option,” Council Member Dick Allendorf added at the meeting before voting against it. “But it could be some way designed so that its density and mass doesn’t stick out so much.”

Next steps

That’s exactly what residents like Annette Bertelsen wanted. She presented to the City Council on behalf of her neighborhood, asking that more green space and wider, more accessible sidewalks be added to the project, which would be the city’s most dense apartment building.

“I was relieved they didn’t vote for a project that doesn’t fit the core Minnetonka values,” she said in an interview, adding the city needs to set design standards for Ridgedale redevelopment. “They really need to figure out these standards. I do feel like the developer lost out and the community lost out. And it was so avoidable.”

Now, the City Council will vote on a formal resolution denying the plans Nov. 10.

Even though Council Member Brad Wiersum voted against the plans, he said this won’t be the last time Minnetonka grapples with how to manage growing density in development.

“Density is the elephant in the room. And I have news for everybody: Minnetonka is going to get more dense,” he said at the meeting. “ … Change is inevitable. And [with] the density of Minnetonka, we don’t want to be St. Louis Park. But we’re going to look more like St. Louis Park in the future than we’re going to look like Medina in the future because we’re becoming a closer-in suburb than we once were.”