A six-story development in the heart of Dinkytown that came to symbolize citywide tensions between housing density and neighborhood preservation won decisive approval Friday over objections from activists.

Calling it a referendum on the high-density projects necessary to increase Minneapolis’ population, the City Council approved rezoning for a 140-unit apartment building in the University of Minnesota neighborhood. The 9-4 vote overturned a committee vote against rezoning, a rare step for the council.

The outcome has implications for development across the city, where city leaders are pushing for more density along commercial corridors — sometimes with loud objections from neighborhood groups.

“If we’re not able to say yes to this project … how and when are we going to be able to say yes to density?” Council Member Elizabeth Glidden asked.

While relatively modest in scope, the Opus Development Company project spurred an outspoken, organized “Save Dinkytown” movement because of its location in the midst of the four-block business district, where activists fear big development will wipe out an intricate web of small businesses. They aggressively pushed their message online and at city political conventions, carrying signs like “Dinkytown not Megatown” at City Hall on Friday.

Supporters countered that it would replace a plot comprised of shabby buildings and 70 percent surface parking lots, along SE. 5th Street between 13th and 14th Avenues, with crucial student housing and attractive ground-level retail.

It was backed by the Marcy Holmes Neighborhood Assocation and the city planning commission, an influential citizen board, but not the council member who represents the area, Diane Hofstede.

“This is a really critical issue not just for Dinkytown but for each and every neighborhood in the city of Minneapolis because it goes to the core of who we are as a city,” Hofstede said, arguing that the project was incompatible with the current plan for the neighborhood. The neighborhood is working on an updated plan, which Hofstede said they should have an opportunity to complete before the parcel is rezoned.

Fatal fire recalled

City staff recommended moving ahead, however. They wrote in an exhaustive report that the project is in line with the city’s comprehensive plan, particularly because it would build dense housing near a busy urban center.

“Our policies tell us that this is where the market should develop,” said Council Member Gary Schiff, chair of the city’s zoning and planning committee.

Council Member Barb Johnson said parents want safe housing for their children, recalling that several university students died in a house fire years ago while living in poorly kept housing.

“I am pleased to see the changes that are happening in these neighborhoods, where that housing is being upgraded,” she said.

For some neighbors, the proposal represented the latest in a series of development projects that have emerged around the Dinkytown area.

Kristen Eide-Tollefson, owner of the Book House, one of the businesses being displaced, noted after the meeting Friday that another developer is eyeing an eight-story project for SE. 4th Street and 14th Avenue.

She said the city should have given the neighborhood a chance to complete its neighborhood plan.

“That undermines the community’s ability to define itself and the small business dimension of
Dinkytown to sustain itself,” Tollefson said.

Building moratorium?

Following the meeting, Hofstede could be overheard telling an activist outside the council chambers that she will proposing a development moratorium for the area. She declined to comment on it when approached by a reporter.

That would echo similar actions in southwest Minneapolis last year, when the city imposed a one-year development moratorium in Linden Hills after neighbors objected to large-scale projects in the neighborhood.

Opus representatives said Friday that they hope to begin construction of the Dinkytown project this month, with possible completion in August 2014.

Supporting the rezoning were Council Members Glidden, Schiff, Johnson, John Quincy, Betsy Hodges, Don Samuels, Kevin Reich, Robert Lilligren and Sandy Colvin Roy. Opponents were Meg Tuthill, Lisa Goodman, Cam Gordon and Diane Hofstede.

Reich reminded the room of the council’s desire for transit-oriented development, population growth and supporting the kind of activities necessary for a vibrant city.

“Building a city is hard,” he said. “Not doing things is easy.”