For the second time in three months, Minnetonka residents are fighting a senior housing development, arguing this time that a planned apartment building wedged between their homes would tower over their established, tree-lined neighborhood.
The developer argues that it’s simply helping meet an increased demand for senior housing, but has agreed to scale back its plans in hopes of winning community support after the city rejected it this month.
“There is always a balancing act,” said Julie Wischnack, the city’s director of community development. “The city has to consider the people who have lived there a long time ... and how you can fit in new projects. It’s not a science, I will tell you that.”
Across the Twin Cities, an aging population and growing demand for rental apartments have spurred a boom in buildings, especially for seniors. Statewide, senior housing with services has jumped from about 800 sites in 2007 to 1,150 this year, according to the state Health Department — and many more are on the way. When they go in near homes, cities hear about it.
In Bloomington, the city is appealing a lawsuit after a judge ruled in December that it had to let a senior-living facility expand despite residents’ concerns about increased traffic. In Edina, residents’ opposition to a 139-unit senior-living building forced the project to be scaled down. And in December, Minnetonka residents killed plans to add an 11th resident to a smaller senior residential group home in the Fairhills neighborhood.
“I think in some cases those protests are unfounded,” said Tom Melchior, an analyst who does market research on senior-living projects. “But it’s a change in the environment that people just don’t want to see.”
Although he said a majority of senior apartment buildings or assisted living projects are in commercial areas, these kind of residential vs. developer disputes are likely to continue as growing housing projects face fewer available sites.
Out of scale, out of place
In Minnetonka, north of Fairhills, another neighborhood is now rallying against plans to rezone an office building into an apartment complex five times larger.
Near Groveland Elementary School and the intersection of Minnetonka Boulevard and County Road 101, the 3-acre site with a 2½-story office building is wedged between single-family homes and a marsh. On Rainbow Drive, a former estate driveway with towering pines, Scott Colehour can barely see the office building from his home, one house away from the property.
“You don’t feel like you’re in the middle of Minnetonka,” he said of the quiet street.
But plans by Bloomington-based developer Doran Companies to rezone the site at 17113 Minnetonka Boulevard would fill the space.
“It would be the largest building for a considerable number of miles,” said Colehour, who set up a website against the plan. “There’s just a lot of things that say ‘really?’ ”
This month, the city’s Planning Commission rejected the plan for a three-story building with underground parking. Doran, which said housing units would range from independent living to memory care, is now scaling it down to 2½ stories. It will present that plan to the city in April.
“There are always challenges when redevelopment happens in established neighborhoods,” said Bill Stoddard, Doran’s vice president of development. “We’re very confident and hopeful we can retool our plans and obtain community and city support.”
With the boom of the senior-living industry, he added, “we think the location is prime.” The company has already downsized plans before, scaling back a concept plan that called for 140 units in a four-story building to the more “neighborhood friendly” plan with 120 units in a three-story, 120,000-square-foot building.
Setting a precedent?
That wasn’t enough for Richard Payne, whose back yard borders the site.
“It’s just completely out of character and out of scale for the neighborhood,” he said, adding that he acknowledges the site needs to be redeveloped at some point. “Hopefully there’s something that can be built on this site that’s good for the city, good for the developer and owner and good for the neighborhood.”
Nearby, 62-year-old Harriet Skarie has lived there since she was 7 years old. Like many of her long-term neighbors, she fears the facility would bring traffic and parking congestion from ambulances and visitors to the quaint neighborhood.
“That’s why people buy here — they want to live in a neighborhood,” she said.
But the developer isn’t giving up on proving it’s possible to be a good neighbor. Stoddard said scaling it down will give it a more residential feel. “Right now, we’re looking at what best fits into the neighborhood in size, scope and services,” he said.
It’s a “step in the right direction,” Colehour said, but he’s still wary about the plan — not just for his neighborhood. He said it could set a precedent in Minnetonka for developers who want to rezone underutilized sites into major apartment buildings.
“If this can go in our neighborhood, it can go into any neighborhood with a small school or church,” he said. “They could end up with an apartment complex smack dab in their neighborhood.”