Loring Park may get 15-story 'point tower' amid the mansions

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April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Developer must get city OK for high-rise on Oak Grove parking lot; can it complement the area's historic character?

Stately mansions once dominated Loring Park, showcasing the wealth of the city's elite at the beginning of the 20th century.

Some manors remain, tucked away along Oak Grove Street a block south of the park. Now, a developer plans to build a 15-story condominium tower on a parking lot between two old homes, the Dunne Mansion, 337 Oak Grove St., and the Lyon House, 419 Oak Grove St.

The proposal has riled some residents who oppose a large tower on Oak Grove, arguing it would be out of context with the smaller, charming homes in the vicinity. Some opposed to the project live in neighboring homes; others are long-time renters who worry about a large tower attracting more high-rises and blocking their park views.

Developer Brad Hoyt of Wayzata-based Continental Development Corp., the project's lead investor, said he appreciates their concerns but a taller tower makes more economic sense even though he admits it would "dwarf the mansions."

Before deciding to move forward with the 80-unit, 15-story tower, Hoyt considered a 21-story tower with 120 units and a smaller, squatter six-story building with 75 units.

The price of Downtown land is so steep these days that few developers propose smaller condominium projects, he noted.

Hoyt has a $5 million purchase agreement for the parking lot and an office building across the street at 430 Oak Grove St. He said he is considering adding condos and a fine-dining restaurant to the 430 Oak Grove offices and, for now, no tenants will be displaced.

Hoyt estimates the tower will cost $30 million to build.

City must sign off

Most of Loring Park is zoned "OR3," an office/residential category allowing for the most density. The height limit is six stories, or 84 feet, according to the city zoning code. Since this project falls within 1,000 feet of a body of water, the height limit is 2.5 stories, said Becca Farrar, a Minneapolis senior planner.

To build taller, Hoyt will need a conditional-use permit from the Minneapolis Planning Commission. If the Commission denies his plans, Hoyt can appeal to the City Council. He plans to meet with city zoning staff within the next month.

The area's Councilmember, Lisa Goodman, said she would reserve judgment on the project until she reviewed the details.

"My general feeling is that anything that's built in the Loring Park neighborhood needs to be consistent with the character of the neighborhood," said the 7th Ward DFLer. "Unfortunately, everyone defines the character differently, but to me it is not a community of high-rises in this location in Loring Park."

However, Goodman, who chairs the Council's Community Development Committee, said a high-rise could fit the area's character if designed to be sensitive to the surrounding architecture.

The project's architects insist a taller tower can be designed in a more sophisticated way than other more imposing high-rises in the neighborhood (i.e. the Summit House, 400 Groveland Ave. and the Oak Grove Towers, 215 Oak Grove St.)

Downtown-based Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle is looking at designing a "point" tower, similar to those in Vancouver, said Paul Mellblom, an associate with the firm. Such towers are more "diminutive in profile," Mellblom said, as opposed to bulkier buildings common in American cities. Point towers cast more "dynamic and narrow shadows," he said, while allowing for increased density.

Mellblom said such a tower could feature street-level details that would add life to the project, such as ground-floor townhomes with lawns stretching 15 feet in from the sidewalk.

"Look around Downtown and the shaft of most commercial buildings plunges into the sidewalk," he said. "When a street/sidewalk experience is active and engages the pedestrian using stoops, gardens, boulevard plantings, storefronts and other urban design qualities that attract the eye, the soul and the interest down at street level, then a tower becomes a complementary presence on the street."

A preliminary design for the condo tower should be complete mid-June, he said.

Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle officials met with residents May 24 to review design plans.

At Goodman's urging, the architects used a "dot-mocracy" method to come up with the best option for the site and generate design feedback for Hoyt.

More than 50 residents put dots next to renderings posted on the wall. About two-thirds bypassed the developer's options and created a new one, a building with fewer than six stories. The rest supported a high-rise option.

The vote came after heated discussion about the neighborhood's changing dynamics. Loring Park has long been dominated by renters. Between 75 to 80 percent of residents are renters, compared to a 50 percent average in other city neighborhoods, said Kim Havey, chair of the Citizens for a Loring Park Community's Land Use Committee.

The neighborhood has 7,501 residents, according to the 2000 Census, up from 6,586 in 1990.

With new condo towers springing up, some residents raised concerns about being priced out of the neighborhood. Others said the tower would set a bad precedent, and invite other high-rises -- a trend that has surfaced in Elliot Park since the 27-story Grant Park tower, 500 E. Grant St., has gone up.

Others cited aesthetic concerns; one resident at the meeting called the small mansions the "soul" of the neighborhood and urged others to oppose a high-rise.

One opponent, who asked not to be named, said he and others would "fight tooth and nail" against Hoyt's 15-story plan.

Some residents dismiss the height concerns.

Ellen Dworsky, a resident at 233 Oak Grove St., said she is more concerned about rising rents. She moved into the neighborhood seven years ago. She said her monthly rent for a one-bedroom has jumped from $470 to $690.

Plans for a tall tower don't bother her. "This is supposed to be a city. That's life. This is not a static city," she said.

Loring Park resident Neil Erickson, who works at Oak Grove Grocery, 218 Oak Grove St., agreed with Dworsky. They talked about the proposed tower recently while she stopped to pick up some groceries.

"A lot of people think it would destroy the neighborhood," he said. "It doesn't bother me."

New residents means more business, he said. The small grocery store has been in business since 1920 under three different owners, he said.

Karen Elshazly and Nell Kassian, who work for the American Refugee Committee in the 430 Oak Grove St. office building, predicted the condo tower would be good for the neighborhood but raised some concerns about a potential parking crunch during construction.

Kelli Brockmeyer, a tenant at the apartment building On the Park, 316 Oak Grove St., shared similar thoughts. She said she often scrambles for parking, particularly in the evening or early morning.

She said she typically parks five blocks away from the apartment building and predicted more construction on the street would acerbate the problem.

Besides Hoyt's development proposal, St. Louis Park-based Steven Scott Management, Inc. is moving forward with a seven-story, 135-unit condo development at 317 Groveland Ave. The developer has since added units to the proposal to address rising construction costs.

Another 59-unit project is already underway at 301 Oak Grove St.

Some have criticized the 301 Oak Grove project for looking like an imposing cement wall. Others have complained about devoting the first level to a parking ramp.

Project Manager Erin Mathern, with Roseville-based Mendota Homes, has urged displeased residents to reserve judgment until the project is complete and reassured them that street-level d/cor would be added to make it more attractive.

With more people looking to live in the urban core in multifamily dwellings, Mellblom said designers need to work with city officials and residents to keep up with the "best strategies" to preserve neighborhood character while adding more density.

He said, "The city is clearly seeking to add residential units, and how we do so is critical to the future and integrity of our city."