A panel of developers told city leaders this week that extensive haggling with neighborhood organizations is making it difficult to build new projects in Minneapolis.

Several City Council members and staffers with the city’s development agency attended the City Hall discussion, organized by the Urban Land Institute of Minnesota. Panelists represented commercial and residential real estate firms, as well as other development areas.

Panelists said they often incur substantial costs with a project trying to win approval from one of the city’s 81 neighborhoods — each of which operates in a slightly different manner — sometimes to have it all collapse. St. Paul, by comparison, has 17 neighborhoods. They asked for more support from City Hall in wading through the process.

“The one thing that we can no longer afford to do … is waste time and money,” said John Breitinger, vice president of United Properties, a commercial real estate developer. “Our pursuit cost budgets have gotten completely out of control.”

Patrick Mascia, a real estate attorney who asked several local developers for their opinions, observed that different people may show up at five meetings with a neighborhood group.

“[I]f the city is going to use neighborhood groups as part of the process … put some structure to that,” Mascia said. “So that there can be some consistency on the development side and we understand going into the project what that process is going to be.”

Council Member Lisa Bender, who leads the council’s Zoning and Planning Committee, agreed there needs to be more consistency in the development process across the city.

She noted there is no requirement to seek approvals from neighborhood groups. Many people believe there is, however, prompting developers to seek neighborhood signoff before consulting extensively with staffers about a project.

“There’s no one standing up at the beginning of the conversation saying, ‘We’ve adopted city policies that say we want to direct growth to transit corridors, this is a transit corridor, this is where the city has decided to grow,’ ” Bender said of neighborhood meetings. “There’s just a developer standing up there with a picture of a building. So it becomes just about the details of that building.”

Bender added that the neighborhood organizations in her ward largely do not represent the majority of her constituents.

Gina Ciganik, a vice president with nonprofit developer Aeon, said she has walked into neighborhood meetings where the agenda listed a motion to deny her project before any discussion of it. She also cited a project where the neighborhood demanded that a certain water heater be installed in new residential units.

“That would be great if you could create some parameters around what is appropriate and what the authority is, that would go a long way,” Ciganik said. “It’s also confusing for the neighborhood, because they don’t know either and they’re doing the best they can do with what they know and what they’re passionate about.”

Council Member Cam Gordon said developers should take time for a short meeting at City Hall before investing very much in a project.

He added that neighborhood associations are often striving to have a “higher purpose and a mission” rather than merely bending to the interests of the development community. In his ward, those interests have taken the form of student housing in recent years.

Max Musicant, whose Musicant Group helps communities activate public places, said an overly complicated zoning process can shut out the smaller players.

“And those are the people that are often times very attuned to the neighborhood,” he said. He suggested creating something akin to TurboTax for maneuvering the city’s development process, including the zoning code. “Look at what TurboTax does for our tax system and filing online,” he said. “It’s a relatively simple process for this very insanely complicated thousand-page book.”

Gordon said that would also help council members and neighborhood organizations by more easily outlining the parameters of a development debate.


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