Fear of heights

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October 4, 2004 // UPDATED 4:14 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

They live in or near Downtown but oppose tall towers -- and have the power to enforce their views

It's a paradoxical phenomenon: Urbanites opposed to tall buildings.

The uprising over high-rises is not a new trend. Some seethed when Target first proposed its 32-story headquarters at Nicollet Mall & South 11th Street. The Carlyle, a 39-story condo tower set to rise near Downtown's central riverfront at South 1st Street & 3rd Avenue South, attracted opponents who argued it would wall off the river.

More recently, the Parc Centrale -- a 21-story "point" tower proposed for Loring Park -- generated intense criticism from a large group of residents who said the condo project would dwarf neighboring mansions and undermine the Loring Hill area's historic character. More than 600 people signed a petition calling for a maximum six-story tower instead.

The Minneapolis City Council and the city's Planning Commission rejected Parc Centrale's proposed height. Brad Hoyt, the lead developer for Wayzata-based Continental Development Group, has said he will sue the city over the denial.

The debate over towers Downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods is more intense than just about any other topic Downtown community groups discuss these days.

Next-door neighborhoods can take opposite views. While Loring Park has fought Parc Centrale, just east of its 5th Avenue border, Elliot Park has embraced Grant Park, a 27-story tower at 500 E. Grant St., and two other planned high-rises.

Paul Mellblom, an architect with Downtown-based Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, is a Parc Centrale partner. He said he was disappointed over the way the concept was received but does not criticize neighbors' power.

"The role of the neighborhood is very important. That's a key lesson. The good thing to come of this is that the neighborhood really become engaged in this process," Mellblom said. "You really need to pay attention to how you ideas are going to be received and whether they are gaining credence or not."

The neighborhoods' power springs from city zoning rules that limit building heights -- meaning the City Council must grant an exception for many towers. And City Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward), who represents Loring Park and Elliot Park, says her support is contingent on the developer working with the neighborhood.

"When communicating with the developers I almost always say, 'I don't live adjacent to this. You need to talk to the people who do,'" she said.

In the case of Parc Centrale, the architect's pitch for the "point" concept -- a taller, more slender tower -- never gained traction with the residents.

The tower's design was inspired by Vancouver architecture. The city has permitted several "point" high-rises in its downtown area in the past decade to accommodate a rapidly growing population. "Point" towers rise narrowly from a wider base, designed to cast small shadows on surrounding buildings -- particularly important in sun-starved winter cities such as Minneapolis.

Mellblom said it took a few decades for the towers to become palatable to Vancouverites. The same might be true for Downtown Minneapolis.

"People have a fear that tall buildings are going to degrade their quality of life," he said.

In Loring Park, those who organized against Parc Centrale raised concern the tower would set a precedent for other high-rises and spark a wave of demolition in the neighborhood's Loring Park Hill section, bounded by Lyndale and LaSalle avenues, West 15th Street and Interstate-94.

The area is dotted with small mansions, three- to six-story buildings and a few high-rises such as the Summit, whose traditional towers rise 20 and 23 stories at 400 Groveland Ave.

Some protestors objected to losing Loring Park views; others worried Parc Centrale would further gentrify the neighborhood and price out long-term renters.

John Van Heel, president of the Citizens for a Loring Park Community, called the tower debate a "complicated issue."

"Towers are OK in some places and not others. This was clearly the case with Parc Centrale on the hill. That was a wrong location for a tower," he said.

Van Heel agreed with Parc Centrale opponents who raised concerns about the tower spiking land values and creating a wave of redevelopment. The neighborhood group is moving forward with a small-area study of Loring Hill to better review future proposals.

Judith Martin, president of the city's Planning Commission and an urban geography professor who heads the University of Minnesota's Urban Studies Department, said the challenges facing Loring Park aren't unique in the city.

"From the Planning Commission perspective, the city needs to get a lot clearer about what our approach to and policies on density are going to be because we have all sorts of things in the comprehensive plan that say we want more," she said. "There seems to be a lot of confusion about what the allowed density is Downtown, close to Downtown and on the fringes."

The tower critics frustrate some Loring Park residents. Jack Peltier, a resident at 23-story Loring Green East, 1201 Yale Place, said he fears the opponents are driving development out of the city.

"It just makes me crazy. Here's the issue: a lot of the people in these neighborhood groups consider themselves liberal, but they're really reactionary. If they had their way over the last 100 years, this would be a city of one-story buildings. Everything changes, and they don't want to change. I don't get it," he said.

Verne Greenlee, a freelance historical tour guide who takes groups on walking tours in Loring Park, Nicollet Island and St. Paul neighborhoods, echoed Peltier.

He said Loring Park has become a great neighborhood because it has evolved without a plan, becoming home to people of all income brackets, religions and lifestyles.

He called tower opponents "extremely provincial."

"A neighborhood cannot be static and homogenized," Greenlee said, who lives in an 1884 Queen Victoria house in the Whittier neighborhood of Southwest Minneapolis. "We have to build up if we're going to stop urban sprawl and get people Downtown. Up is the way to go."

Mike Marn, a new CLPC board member who led the Parc Centrale opposition, disagrees. He said he supports tall buildings in the heart of Downtown, including the proposal for a 48 -story condo tower at South 10th Street & Nicollet Mall, but finds the structures inappropriate in the Loring Hill area.

Marn said he's working with other neighborhood residents to designate the area (also referred to as the Loring Ridge) an historic district, similar to the Harmon Place Historic District, part of the city's old automobile row near the Minneapolis Community and Technical College, 1501 Hennepin Ave. S.

"People make the mistake of associating Loring Park with Downtown. The more towers that are built, the less distinction there's going to be between us and Downtown," Marn said.

Scott Mayer, another Loring Park resident who organized against Parc Centrale agreed: "Preserving the the character of the neighborhood is not being provincial."

Goodman believes density can be achieved without building high-rises. That's a view also favored by Tom Hoch, chairman of the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association (DMNA), which covers the Central Business district and western riverfront north of 12th Street.

Hoch said he's a strong supporter of towers in the Downtown core but understands why they might not be right for neighboring communities such as Loring Park.

His criteria for reviewing new projects within DMNA's borders -- such as the 21st Century Towers, twin 29-story high rises at 240-258 Hennepin Ave. S. and the 45-story Nicollet Mall condo tower -- are based on practical logistics and aesthetics.

"Not only should these new, taller residential buildings fit into the skyline, but they need to work as a complete package," he said, such as having a friendly street-level presence and not creating traffic problems.

Martin said the resistance to towers is nothing new.

"The larger point is that this is a city that has been very hesitant about high-rise development for a very long time," she said. "I think it's partly to do with the culture of the Upper Midwest. More people who live here probably come from backgrounds where they grew up with some connection to single family homes with yards and open space."

David Frank, a project manager with Schafer Richardson, the Northeast Minneapolis-based development firm behind several North Loop loft projects and the East Bank "A" Mill condo proposal, said the height debate can get heated.

Some people seem to have a knee-jerk reaction against tall buildings in Minneapolis regardless of the design, he said.

"As a kid who grew up in a 15-story building in New York City that was probably the shortest one on my block, I have to acknowledge up front, I'm not your average Minnesotan, or Midwesterner, when it comes to this subject," he said. "I truly believe that a well-designed 20-story building is far preferable to a poorly designed 10-story building."

Frank will have his chance to prove it: Schaefer-Richardson's latest concept for the nine-building, 1,000-plus-unit "A" Mill project, includes a 27-story tower that may face the same objections that have sidelined Parc Centrale.