Minnetonka hopes people will soon visit the Ridgedale Center area for much more than shopping.
Over time, the city envisions transforming the area around the mall to include things like dense apartments, an upscale movie theater, restaurants, more trails and green spaces for events and festivals.
The scenario may sound familiar. Many other cities, including St. Louis Park and Edina, are looking to transform a sea of parking lots into areas that are less car-dependent and more appealing to new residents and visitors.
But in Minnetonka, some residents say high-density buildings like the proposed mid-rise to be discussed Thursday by the city's planning commission threaten the character of Minnetonka, known for its wooded areas and single-family homes. The mixed-use building, they say, is too tall, too dense and would bring too much traffic.
"They will be creating a city within a city," said Audra Johnson, who will be able to see the building from her wooded back yard. "I like the idea that they want to revitalize the area. But what I don't want to see is hundreds and thousands of people in an urban setting, because this is the suburbs. If I wanted to live next to high-rises, I would have moved to Minneapolis."
City leaders and residents agree the project could set a precedent — among the first redevelopment proposals in the Ridgedale area. Plans call for tearing down the three-story bank on the 2-acre site and building a six-story building with 120 apartments, underground and surface parking, and 16,000 square feet of retail. While residents say they support new apartments and retail, they argue that the Highland Bank redevelopment proposal lacks green space and would be the city's most dense apartment building.
"We feel it changes the whole culture of Minnetonka and the whole area," resident Patty Aossey said. "If this goes through, it opens the door for projects that can be more intrusive for other neighborhoods."
Suburbs with an 'urban feel'
Like other suburbs, Minnetonka wants to make the aging city more walkable and attractive to both baby boomers and young adults.
In St. Louis Park, the West End has about 40 acres of mixed-use development with upscale apartments, boutiques, retail, restaurants and a movie theater. And in Edina, luxury apartments just opened in a Southdale Center parking lot, apartments are being built near a Byerly's, and the city is upgrading its Edina Promenade, an 80-foot-wide greenway that includes a 10-acre lake and park.
In Minnetonka, the city has a "vision" for the Ridgedale area for how it could change by 2035, such as transforming the retail center into a mixed-used community with dense housing like the Highland Bank redevelopment, adding a parkway, more green areas and better access for pedestrians and drivers.
"We do feel redeveloping an area that people want to go to for more than just buying jeans … enhances the vitality of that area," Mayor Terry Schneider said. "And it's not easy in a fully developed area."
Long-term, the city could add trails, replace surface lots with structured parking, add a town green and put in roundabouts. Now, construction of a ramp from Interstate 394 aims to relieve some traffic issues. In 2016, the city plans to build a trail from the north side of I-394 to Ridgedale Drive to connect trails. And in 2018, it plans to turn Ridgedale Drive into a tree-lined parkway.
But adding a mixed-use, high-density building is a change for a mostly developed city with limited mixed use and only two new apartment buildings built in the past 10 years. Which is why, Schneider said, the city is looking to set guidelines for height and density in the Ridgedale area, and manage traffic.
"We believe in the vision of increasing density when the opportunity arises," he said. "It's a balancing act … we're not going to change the basic single-family character of Minnetonka."
This summer, the City Council approved concept plans for the bank redevelopment off Cartway Lane and Plymouth Road. The plan, proposed by Bader Development and Paster Enterprises, includes a bank, coffee shop, restaurant and retail.
On Thursday, the planning commission will discuss whether to recommend rezoning the area as a planned unit development as well as to approve the development plan, the final site and building plans. If so, the City Council could vote Oct. 27.
"It's too big for its site," said Annette Bertelsen, who has lived nearby for 27 years. "It's going to be this misplaced, oversized building."
She and other residents want the plans scaled down as well as rules and infrastructure changes set before the project gets the green light.
"In two years, it will be all apartments if this goes through," resident Derek Diesen said. "The city ultimately isn't doing their job in planning. They're letting this project set the standard for the entire Ridgedale community."
Residents say the building doesn't fit with Minnetonka's village feel. They're also upset they found out about it not from the city, but when a neighbor with a safe deposit box at the bank was notified of the bank's demolition.
"We blinked and here's what happened," Aossey said. "And now we have to fight for the values of our city."