Developers just love Main Street, especially the 500 block. At one end, at 521 Main Street, stands a 134-year-old duplex. At the other end at 503, is a 1½ -story home. Both are slated to give way to multifamily housing in the next couple of years.
On Nov. 18, the Minneapolis City Planning Commission gave developer Sean Sweeney the go-ahead to build a four-story, 29-unit apartment building at 521 Main. Developer Danny Perkins is looking for similar approval for the construction of a three-story fourplex at 503. Both presented their plans at the St. Anthony West Neighborhood Organization (STAWNO) meeting on Nov. 14.
It was a long, sometimes contentious meeting.
STAWNO Board Chair Margaret Egan opened the meeting with a description of the area’s zoning, now and in the near future, and encouraged everyone in the room to read the handouts, which she said, “will give you some very specific info about a very complex topic.”
Some of the complexity involved the City’s 2040 Plan, in which there would be significant zoning changes. Egan added, “Main Street is in the area called R5; it’s sitting right next to a section called R2B. Basically, those two areas are going to flip, as far as the height that the building codes will require. The development proposals we’re looking at tonight are under the current zoning code, and that goes up to four stories. In the future, and that’s only when the rezoning takes place, they will go to three stories.” She noted that she lives in an R2B zone, which will change from a two-story height maximum to four stories.
Ward 3 City Council member Steve Fletcher added, “Any proposals for land use application approval coming in after January 1 will have to have a percentage of their units be affordable, and that’s going to be phased in, so neither of these proposals would that apply to.”
The first presentation came from developer Danny Perkins, who stood with DJR architect Mike Stoddard and displayed boards showing renderings of a three-story apartment building for the lot at 503 Main St. The design proposes four, 4-bedroom units, with an 1,800 square foot footprint and five on-site parking spaces. Perkins said that the design was submitted for approval two weeks ago, and plans are for a spring construction start.
Questions came quickly from the audience, primarily about parking. Mary Sherman said, “There will be 20 adults living there. There is no alley. How will your five spaces help that?” Perkins replied that he’s built similar units in South Minneapolis and hasn’t had issues. “We’re allowing for this. You don’t see many projects that have this many off-street parking spaces included. It’s just a reality. If cars are blocking your driveway, the city will tow them really quickly. You have my personal number; if you call me, I’ll personally have them towed.”
Questions turned to affordability and why this project couldn’t include affordable units. Council Member Fletcher said, “I think there’s room in bigger projects for affordable units. But construction projects have gone up so much [in costs] that it is actually not possible to build affordable housing without subsidies. We just gave away $18 million in housing money to get 1,000 new housing units approved this month with that money.” Perkins replied, “$600 per bedroom is not affordable,” but asked Fletcher to agree that it was competitive.
An audience member suggested the building’s design was very generic, and not congruent with the neighboring structures. He suggested stucco as an exterior material, to which Perkins said that the neighborhood itself was “rather eclectic” itself. Perkins is right about that; across Main Street from the hundred-plus year-old homes are late 1970s one- and two-family split level houses with attached garages.
Egan returned the discussion to the board. Board member Paul Jablonsky said, “Both of these projects have total legal right to do what they are doing; we as a neighborhood are stuck with this because our City Council members want this to happen. They have very loose parking requirements. These developers come in, without consideration of environmental or traffic conditions. I would ask the board for a motion to put a moratorium in all development in the R5 zones immediately until we can study the parking and environmental and density impact. I don’t want to have 70 cars on Main Street. In the heart of the neighborhood. Not a good idea.” The audience applauded, the motion was made and seconded, and received a unanimous “yes” vote.
Developer Sean Sweeney and Collage Architecture’s Pete Keely presented their design for the corner property at 521 Main St, currently occupied by the 134-year-old duplex. It calls for a four-story, 29-unit building with 14 parking spaces. Sweeney discussed the current tight rental market (2% vacancy rate) and the need for affordable rental units for people who can’t or don’t want to buy. He said, “We are trying to help those people find a way out. The way that the vacancy rate goes up, and the rent goes down, is more housing. And that’s probably the last thing that anyone in this room wants to hear; I totally understand that. It’s a big change.”
Keely said, “We are a Northeast-based company. We did try to take some cues from the neighborhood and how it was planned. Our design is for housing units from 400 square feet to 1,200 square feet. This is a mix of housing types that are needed in the neighborhood and the city. We think integrating and mixing different types of populations is a good idea. We include townhouse units with separate street entrances. Parking access comes from an entrance on Sixth; there will be 14 stalls. The building is four stories, with much of the building set back 15 feet from the street.”
Egan asked Sweeney if the project would work without a fourth floor. Sweeney replied that the rents would have to be increased “drastically,” eliminating the affordability of the several studio apartments proposed. “I try to build units that are 70% AMI, for the most part. They’re not getting subsidies. I’m trying to meet the needs of people who are making $50-75K a year. Not typically above that, and anything below that would involve subsidies. My hunch is that change would not work.”
Board Member Phil Cross said he was surprised that Sweeney did not have rental rates available. Sweeney said that the building wouldn’t come on line until 2021, and he couldn’t predict what the market would be then. A discussion followed about landscaping, building materials, lighting and inevitably, parking. Asked why the building didn’t include an underground parking ramp, Stoddard replied, “We can’t get a double-loaded underground ramp there without reducing number of units.”
Longtime Main Street resident Mary Sherman probably has the most skin in this game. Her single-family home sits squarely between the two proposed sites. Her family has occupied the house since 1900, when her grandparents bought it from her grandmother’s sister. At one time, three generations lived under the same roof.
She peppered Sweeney with questions about noise, parking in front of her house, balconies that could view her second floor windows and trees that would drop leaves into her yard. She also wondered about the physical effect on her house during construction. Sweeney said environmental engineers and vibration sensors would be used to prevent harm. When Sweeney said that the project didn’t have permits, Sherman asked, “Then why are we voting on this now? Why can’t we wait till the 2040 plan goes into effect?”
Fletcher responded, “At any given time, we have to abide by the zoning in place when the application was made. That’s the deal we make with every property in the city, including every homeowner in this room. Consistent with the neighborhood is not the standard. We have a zoning standard.”
After the presentation, Tony Hofstede proposed a motion to require the developer to deal with a list of concerns that included changes to building materials, landscaping, fencing, lighting, and because of the site’s proximity with the river, bird-friendly windows.
Hofstede brought the motion to the City Planning Commission. After some discussion, the neighborhood’s request was added to a list of changes the commission wants made to the plan. In the end, the developers got their approval. And Mary Sherman will get a taller fence at their expense.
Below: Mary Sherman’s family home will be sandwiched between the two new buildings. (Photo by Mark Peterson) Left, the four-story apartment building at 521 Main will offer porches for people on the ground floor and rooftop decks for tenants on the top floor. Right, the apartment building at 503 Main is geared toward people making an annual income of $50,000 to $75,000. (Graphics courtesy of the developers)