Serving history withheight limits?

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April 25, 2005 // UPDATED 1:54 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

Phoenix on the River, a planned 17-story condo-and-retail project in the St. Anthony Falls Historic District, got the blessing of the city's Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC), but not before a long debate on height limits and an 11-foot snip job off the top.

The April 12 action foreshadows more battles ahead for future historic district development projects. The looming question is: To give the Pillsbury "A" Mill and the Red Tile Elevator their proper historic respect, does it matter whether their new neighbors are taller or not?

The HPC gave Schafer Richardson a Certificate of Appropriateness for the Phoenix project, 224 SE 2nd St., on a show-of-hands 6-4 vote. Michelle Dunn, Chad Larsen, Todd Grover and Robert Glancy voted no. Several Commissioners raised concerns about the project's height and the precedent set for future projects.

The development sits between Southeast Main and 2nd streets on the west side of 3rd Avenue Southeast. It is between St. Anthony Main and the "A" Mill. The project would have 70 residential units, 5,500 square feet of retail and 220 interior parking spaces, according to a city summary.

The HPC's vote gave Schafer Richardson almost everything it asked for. Most significantly, the vote allows Phoenix on the River to be the same height as the Red Tile Elevator - at 189 feet above Main Street, the tallest structure of the old milling complex. HPC guidelines state that "new buildings be no higher than existing silo-mills in the area."

(The HPC staff report recommended a 107-foot height limit, the height of the "A" Mill, which Schafer Richardson is also developing.)

However, the HPC approval came with a twist.

Architects drew the 17-story tower's parapet two inches shorter than the Red Tile Elevator's parapet, said David Frank, Schafer Richardson's project manager. However, the Phoenix tower has a rooftop chiller, elevator tower and other projections that add another 11 feet on top of the building.

Schafer Richardson had not counted the projections in its height measurement. (The Red Tile Elevator also has projections, including its sign.)

The HPC told Schafer Richardson it had to lower the building - projections and all - to 189 feet.

The decision didn't appear to sit well with developer Kit Richardson immediately following the vote. "It is a huge deal," he said in the hallway. "You don't want to lose a floor on a building like that."

Several days after the vote, Frank said he had spoken to architects and they are looking for creative solutions. They could compress the floors. They could seek ways to lower the rooftop elevator tower.

"There are other ways to skin the cat other than losing the floor," Frank said. "I don't think that is what will happen."

He called the HPC vote a good result.

"This gives us some of the permissions we need to build the building we want to build and the market is asking us for," he said.

Phoenix on the River still needs Planning Commission approval for a zoning change, site plan review, conditional-use permits and variances, Frank said. The hearing is May 9. The City Council also needs to approve the zoning change.

If the project stays on track, Schafer Richardson could begin marketing the project the third week in May. Frank said he hoped to start work this summer. He did not have a project cost estimate.

Phoenix applause

HPC Chair Phillip Koski and others praised the Phoenix design - its massing, materials and hidden parking.

Supporters noted the development has a lower, five-story building fronting Main Street, an effort to reduce the visual competition with its historic neighbors. The 17-story tower sits well back from Main Street. (If you extended a line from the "A" Mill's back wall across the street to the Phoenix, the Phoenix tower would rise behind the "A" Mill.)

The HPC chose not to impose some of the stricter conditions its staff recommended.

For instance, the HPC vote allowed the developer to keep the stepped-back two-story glass penthouse. Some Commissioners felt it detracted from the design and the building's clean lines. The staff report said the reflective glass walls are not common in the district.

Architect David Graham said the glass would effectively disappear, giving the building a lower profile. (Koski said sometimes glass disappears in the sun, "and sometimes it will hit you in the eye.")

Only three people testified at the HPC's public hearing. All supported the Phoenix.

P. Victor Grambsch, president of the Nicollet Island/East Bank Neighborhood Association (NIEBNA), testified that both his group and the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood group supported Phoenix on the River. (The project is in Marcy-Holmes but just a block east of NIEBNA.)

John Rimarcik, a neighborhood resident and part owner of St. Anthony Main, said the Phoenix on the River would strengthen the city and add vitality. He questioned what would have happened in Chicago if civic leaders had imposed height limitations around its historic downtown water tower.

"I am very much in favor of the height," he said.

However, Koski, who supported the Phoenix project, said "the issue that is most troubling and controversial is the height."

People talked about preserving the historic "viewshed" of the East Bank mill area from the Stone Arch Bridge and the river's west bank.

Commissioner Glancy said he worried about the precedent set by allowing Phoenix on the River to go as high as the Red Tile Elevator, saying eventually the "A" Mill could become "insignificant" in relationship to the district and the streetscape.

Schafer Richardson also plans to redevelop a three-block stretch of riverfront property that includes the "A" Mill and Red Tile Elevator. Buildings in the project - now in environmental review - could exceed the elevator's height by more than 100 feet.

Two of four "A" Mill alternatives being evaluated by the city feature three towers that would be 297, 264 and 220 feet tall, respectively - or 108, 75 and 31 feet above the 189-foot cap.

All three buildings front Main Street on a line with the Red Tile elevator - and are closer to the river than the Phoenix tower.

Language in a dcoument called an Environmental Assessment Worksheet says the final "A" Mill height ruling, whatever it is, will be a "precedent-setting decision."

Wrote the City Planning Department, "It would be difficult to take historic-preservation regulation seriously in the future, if the preservation-agency acquiesced on so clear a breach of regulations, in so important a district."

Commissioner Kathleen Anderson reassured colleagues that the HPC retained oversight and approval of future requests.

After the meeting, Frank said he also had concerns about the precedent set by the Phoenix vote, noting Commissioners were sticking to the 189-foot cap.

"We don't agree with that," he said. "We would like to build buildings which are still taller than this one."

Frank noted that the "Minneapolis way" has become that you show respect to an historic neighborhood or an historic building by building something shorter than it. There are ways to show an historic building respect besides a lower height, he added.

"There is a larger philosophical conversation at work here," Frank said.

***

How high by the East Bank riverfront?

The new Phoenix on the River project is being measured against a building in the sprawling Pillsbury 'A' Mill development next door.

The city's Historic Preservation Commission wants the Phoenix's 17-story upper segment to rise no higher than the 189-foot-tall historic Red Tile Elevator. The circled numbers show various building heights in one version of the 'A' Mill projectundergoing environmental review. (Unshaded 'A' Mill buildings are new construction.)

Another 'A' option would limit all Main Street buildings to 185 feet, while the two buildings along 2nd Street would be 215 feet. The same developer is doing the Phoenix and 'A' Mill projects.