The prospect of a modern, five-story apartment building going up on the edge of Minneapolis' eclectic Eat Street has some neighbors wondering if their part of the city is on the cusp of a big transition — and could end up looking more like neighboring Uptown.

Developers hope to break ground this fall on a 70-unit complex that would fill most of the now-vacant lot at the corner of E. 26th Street and Stevens Avenue. It would rise about one story higher than the tallest nearby buildings, providing some top-floor residents an eagle's-eye view of the steady foot and car traffic on the restaurant-dotted stretch of Nicollet Avenue known as Eat Street, located one block away.

The plan has some in the neighborhood cheering the prospect of higher-density housing and an influx of middle-income apartment dwellers who will help local bars and restaurants thrive. Most agree the long-vacant site is an eyesore in need of development.

But others have been vocal with concerns about traffic, affordability, and, most commonly, fears that the building is a first step toward the kind of development that brings in national chains and pushes out the small ethnic restaurants, shops and artist studios that make the Whittier neighborhood unique. More than 250 neighbors and nearby businesses have signed a petition opposing the plans.

"Whittier is quirky and different," said neighbor Dave La Violette, who has lived near the apartment building site for nearly 30 years. "And that's the thing: I don't want to live in Uptown."

The project site, currently a mess of bushes and weeds tucked behind a chain-link fence, hasn't exactly been a magnet for development.

As increasingly upscale businesses have bloomed near it — just up the street is a yoga studio and a bar that specializes in fermented products ranging from local kombucha tea to artisan cheeses — the property has sat untouched.

The only recent activity on the site has been from environmental cleanup crews, tasked with removing some of the chemicals that leeched into the soil during the eight decades it was home to a dry cleaning business and gas station. After Despatch Laundry shut down in the mid-1980s, the site languished as a tax-forfeited property and eventually made its way onto the state's list of Superfund cleanup properties.

For years, vapors from the chemicals in the soil have been pumped out through a series of pipes. The stuff pulled out of the ground is so toxic, the property developer told neighbors, that it has to be shipped to a site in Pennsylvania — the only one in the country that will accept it.

The site's environmental history has been a big problem for developers, who can't build below-ground parking, storage or living space without dramatically increasing the cost of a project.

Two other proposals for smaller mixed-use developments on the sites over the last decade were more popular with neighbors but never made it beyond the planning stage.

Ed Bell, the property's owner, said the environmental cleanup and the cost of development have been a "struggle."

"We put our faith in [the new developers]," he said. "We had a lot of other people we put our faith in and we wasted a lot of time."

That's why Daniel Oberpriller, principal with developer CPM Development, said he needs to make the building taller than what's generally allowed in the neighborhood. He plans to put down a material that acts as a vapor barrier under the building, and he's seeking a city variance to build up to five stories — a request that met with a divided reaction at two neighborhood meetings.

In an August meeting, Oberpriller fielded question from neighbors who worried the new apartments would produce too much light, clog up a small alley and drive up housing costs. A few people took issue with the planned blue and gray color scheme of the building.

Giancarlo Casale, who has lived across the alley from the property for about 10 years, said neighbors were frustrated that after years of silence on the site, the project caught many people by surprise and seemed to be moving quickly.

He and others said Whittier needs more housing that can accommodate families, including large apartments. CPM's plans call for apartments ranging from studio size to two bedrooms. Oberpriller said rents on many of the units would run below $1,000 per month.

Casale said the plans seem more like college dorms than family housing and said the neighborhood deserves more — especially since taxpayers paid for the massive cleanup.

"If you build something interesting there, you could transform the neighborhood and do something special," he said. "But to do it this way, to have a rushed meeting, so you can build a 70-unit private dorm?"

In the end, however, the Whittier Alliance board voted to approve most of CPM's plans. The neighborhood group still wants to have input on the design of the building, should it receive the approval of the city. That process will likely begin this month.

"We love to participate with neighborhood groups, but there are a lot of opinions and it can be a little hard to balance," Oberpriller said. "We are trying to navigate that path."

Marian Biehn, executive director of the Whittier Alliance, said the debate over the project represents a broader discussion that needs to happen in the neighborhood. With or without the apartments, the neighborhood is changing. On Eat Street, craft cocktail bars and busy brunch spots are moving in alongside small ethnic grocery stores.

Plans to someday remove the Kmart further down the street and open up the link to other parts of Nicollet Avenue experiencing similar growth could transform the entire area, she said.

"It's almost a 'be careful what you wish for,' because that will spur development and the development could be intense," she said. "And then you do start losing some of the small business character, the nice patchwork of different types of structures along Nicollet Avenue, and that's part of the what we attribute the charm to."

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790