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Plan for 5-story condo builds resentment in Linden Hills

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN
  • Star Tribune
  • August 20, 2011 - 9:57 PM

It is a summer Friday morning in Linden Hills, a quaint and quiet Minneapolis neighborhood near Lake Harriet. A group of seniors has gathered outside the Dunn Bros coffee shop to chat. Across the street, a little girl draws on the sidewalk with chalk. You can hear a piano playing off in the distance. People on opposite sides of the street wave; everybody seems to know everybody.

You can see why this particular area was used in a scene from the movie "Jingle All the Way." It has a certain wholesome Midwestern charm that's getting hard to find inside the city.

But fliers posted on light poles suggest things aren't perfect. A novice developer wants to build a five-story condo on a corner that flanks rows of one- and two-story buildings, and many neighbors are worried sick that he is willing to ruin the ambience in order to jingle all the way to the bank.

It's a classic development story, but it's unfolding in a neighborhood whose residents hold an uncommon affection for retaining the feel of the place. The number of them who signed a petition against the condo is nearing 1,000, and a website criticizing the plan has drawn hundreds of comments.

"The very special character of Linden Hills that we all treasure is AT STAKE," said one. "Another example of greed in society," said another.

The would-be developer, Mark Dwyer, has lived in the neighborhood for nearly 20 years. This is his first development project. He expected those details would help him get his project approved, but he says it has only made people more suspicious.

In fact, Dwyer is so surprised by the swift and sharp rejection that when I suggested we meet for coffee near the corner in question, he suggested another location far from the site. "It's like I kicked a bee's nest," he said.

"People say, 'You seem like a nice guy; what are you hiding?'" Dwyer said.

Dwyer said he truly thinks the condo, which would be on the space now occupied by Famous Dave's and an adjacent lot that was once a gas station, is best for the community.

"Linden Hills needs to rejuvenate," he said. His idea would bring in good, financially stable neighbors. He could clean up the site, add green spaces. There would be 32 condos, ranging in price from $350,000 to perhaps $1 million, plus first-floor retail that could include the Famous Dave's.

"I think this will be a real asset," he said.

While some of his opponents don't doubt Dwyer's sincerity, others wonder why he became head of the local business association a few years ago when he didn't own a business in the neighborhood. They say he now has a conflict of interest, and wonder if he's fronting for a bigger developer.

"I think he's a very nice person," said Sara Schumacher, a 30-year resident. "But he also wants to make money, and he needs to be respectful of what the community wants."

What the community wants, she said, is for any development on that corner to be three stories or fewer to complement the scale of the buildings around them. In fact, the neighborhood agreed to that way back in 1999 after a survey of residents, she said.

Now, Dwyer is seeking a conditional-use permit to make an exception to the three-story limit in order to make the project financially viable. Dwyer, who sold a chain of car washes, is not financing the deal. He said it would only go forward if he can pre-sell the units.

Dwyer does seem like a nice guy. He also seems generally distraught that his neighbors are so angry at him. "Now I'm the greedy guy looking to ride on the backs of my neighbors looking for profit," he said, shaking his head. "Other developers say I shouldn't have been so open about it, that I should have asked for more floors and compromised to five. But I'm trying to be honest."

Felicity Britton is "not opposed" to the condos, and thinks Dwyer "is a guy who likes to be liked. He's never been the bad guy here; he's always been the good guy. I think he's the person to do it."

But Christopher Maddox, a resident who is leading the campaign against the condo, said that Dwyer's initial plans were vague and that he's only willing to seek input on niceties, not the size or height of the project.

"We are not against development," said Maddox. "But the zoning was put on the table for a reason. People like living here because of the scale of the community."

Even though wealthy neighbors would increase her business, Kristin Tombers, owner of Clancy's Meats and Fish, opposes the condos.

"It's a critical corner to me," said Tombers. "Whether it's three or five stories, it's still a monolith in this neighborhood."

Dwyer recently set up focus groups to get input, but Maddox and others won't participate because height is "off the table."

While he's most concerned with the size, Maddox said the style of the condo "could fit in at 50th and France, but not here."

So what has Dwyer learned from the project?

"This is my first development," he said with a sigh. "And last."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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