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Communication is key

Open lines win the support of wary neighbors

Every walk out to check the mail brings the potential for bad news. Between the neverending bills — cable, power, gas, cell phone, loans, credit cards and the other pricy essentials of American luxury — and the junk mail, assorted coupons and special offers stuffed into everyone’s mailbox on a daily basis, it all adds up to make checking the mail one of the universal annoyances of our shared experience.

Teardowns, new home construction and massive remodeling projects are another one of these potential shared annoyances, this one perhaps more common to Southwest Minneapolis as its neighborhoods become more desirable in a sustained hot housing market. These projects bring the potential for dumpsters taking up long-term residence on peaceful neighborhood boulevards, loud racket stemming from construction and dirt and trash accumulating as work progresses.

The controversial 2014 Southwest Minneapolis teardown moratorium and subsequent construction management agreement put in place by the City of Minneapolis helped address many of these issues, but a more permanent concern remains: that the proliferation of these projects will irrevocably alter longstanding “neighborhood character,” and in the process the community loses a big piece of what made the area desirable in the first place.

So against this backdrop, Armatage neighborhood residents ambled out to their mailboxes near a quiet stretch of Minnehaha Creek last fall. Residents living within 350 feet of 5400 Vincent Ave. S. found a “Notice for Public Hearing” slotted in amidst the usual postal detritus.

The new owners of 5400 Vincent were applying for a variance to reduce the property’s setback to build bump-outs for new bay windows and a new deck in the backyard. Because of 5400 Vincent’s unique position as a reverse corner lot, some of the setbacks enshrined in the city’s building code literally extended into the house, according to project architect Karen Thompson of Quartersawn, a design-build firm based in the Tangletown neighborhood.

“We were dealing with a pretty unique situation with the existing zoning code,” said Thompson. “A big part of this project was really communication, just explaining to everyone the circumstances and scale of the project.”

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Opposition forms

Several neighbors took time to write the city planner working with Thompson on the 5400 Vincent project. In the wake of the teardown controversy and spate of new construction in Southwest Minneapolis, they were wary of this new variance request.

“The Armatage area has seen a lot of new construction lately. Huge homes are being built that often obliterate any sense of privacy and space, any view, any openness to the sun and sky that once were enjoyed by immediate neighbors,” wrote one neighbor.

“Of course we have no choice but to accept this when construction is carried out within the city’s housing codes and regulations,” he continued. “However it makes no sense to add, on top of all this, construction that results from the overturning of what few regulations still exist to keep the right balance between the built and natural environments in our neighborhood.”

Another neighbor also feared the new construction would overshadow the existing structures lining the idyllic neighborhood street.

“Whatever the details of the variance asked for…please know that I am adamantly against the City Planning Office allowing to push the footprint of the house north of the northernmost point of the other houses on the street,” she wrote.

Sensing that opposition was building toward this fairly innocuous home improvement project— new bay windows, a new 300-square-foot backyard deck and some interior remodeling — city staff and Thompson worked to better explain the project to worried neighbors.

A turnaround

Five days after one neighbor stated his serious concerns over the variance request for 5400 Vincent, he retracted his opposition in a letter to city staff, explaining that he had come to a better understanding of what the project included.

“Given the ambitious nature of most new additions to our neighborhood, I of course feared the worst,” he wrote. “If my understanding of the precise currently proposed changes is correct, you can consider my lengthy previous message to not apply to this particular project… I wish them all the best with their current project.”

The variance request was granted last fall and the new owners of 5400 Vincent now enjoy their new deck, windows and remodeled interior, all completed without becoming the Bane of Armatage.

Most Southwest residents still remain wary of new construction, especially when “Notice of Public Hearing” containing the words “Variance Request” show up in the mailbox, but by most accounts this was a project done with in accordance to the neighborhood character.

“It’s (fear of new construction) has been going on for a while now, it’s not uncommon to encounter a lot of hesitation from neighbors,” said Thompson, the architect. “The biggest thing is to communicate the project scope well and be sensitive to neighborhood character.”