Riverfront development: how tall is too tall?

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October 20, 2003 // UPDATED 12:15 pm - July 18, 2013
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

The city has many laws restricting building heights -- and many exceptions. As high-rises rise higher near the Mississippi, is the public interest being protected?

In recent months, new condo projects have become ubiquitous Downtown, popping up at a rapid pace to feed a seemingly insatiable demand for riverfront views and a respite from traffic snarls suburbanites face.

However, some who already call Downtown's waterfront home have raised concerns that new large-scale private development might "wall off" the riverfront from the public, blocking views and parkland access.

Other residents and city leaders welcome the new housing. They say more Downtown residents will fuel development of new shops, grocery stores and restaurants. More density also bolsters the city's tax base, they say. A few add the critics are hypocrites -- since the tall buildings they live in blocked someone's view when they were built.

Two large condo proposals -- the 39-story Bridge Place tower Downtown, and the seven-building, 1,050-unit Pillsbury "A" condo project on the river's east bank -- have forced the issue recently.

Developers of both projects have shown designs at neighborhood meetings and listened to resident feedback. Shafer-Richardson, the Pillsbury "A" developer, scaled back its project to 1,050 units to save on costs and alleviate resident concerns about its size.

Opus Corp. and Apex Asset Management, meanwhile, continue to work on the Bridge Place faade design to make it more palatable to the city's Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC). The HPC has taken issue with the building's design and raised some concerns about its height.

The Bridge Place tower would be located in an historic district near the Post Office building, the old Milwaukee train depot and the former Federal Reserve building.

The developers of the project are scheduled to go before the HPC for a public hearing Tuesday, Oct. 21.

A 'wall' Opponents of the Bridge Place tower insist they're not just concerned about their own private skyline views.

Cynthia Gerdes lives in the 27-story LaRive apartment building on the Mississippi's east bank. She said she wants to see the riverfront reserved for more public uses.

Gerdes said she's worried that the proposed Bridge Place tower would set a bad precedent for Downtown's waterfront. The building would replace existing buildings at 3rd Avenue South and 2nd Street, near the 3rd Avenue Bridge.

Instead of leaving more space for parkland and public places such as the Guthrie Theater and the Mill City Museum, she said she's concerned additional private housing projects would cut off the public's river access.

"It's not my view that I'm concerned about," Gerdes said. "The view is like the river. It's constantly changing. One building is not going to make a difference to my view. That's not the issue, whatsoever. The whole thing is what's going on with the river. I thought there was a plan."

City plans call for buildings to tier downward toward the river in a gradual "transition" from the 57-story IDS Tower, said Blake Graham, interim planning director.

Gerdes' LaRive neighbor, George Carlson, has appealed a Minneapolis Planning Commission decision approving Bridge Place. The approval is contingent on HPC approving its faade.

Carlson maintains that a 39-story tower so close to the river would be way out of scale with neighboring buildings. That violates the master plan, he suggests.

Bridge Place would go up next to the 16-story Rivergate apartment building. The four-story Mill Place Office Building stands across the street, adjacent to the 20-story RiverWest apartment building.

A close look at city height rules (see sidebars, below and opposite) reveals that the Bridge Place site is a developer's dream.

The property sits in a large riverfront district where heights are limited to six or eight stories -- but Bridge Place in a small zoning pocket where those rules don't apply. However, blocks to its north and east are bound by the height limits -- meaning Bridge Place residents won't ever wake up to find their river or sunrise views blocked by a newer building...unless some future developer wangles an exemption.

Carlson said he'd like to see the historic flour mills serve as markers for riverfront height guidelines.

"[Bridge Place] tends to isolate and wall off Downtown from the river," he said. "It doesn't transition at all. It's a huge building right on the edge of the river."

City plans, exceptions The riverfront is also governed by a critical area plan, administered by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The plan's guidelines are "complicated" to say the least, said Fred Neet, a Minneapolis city planner specializing in riverfront zoning.

The critical area plan restricts development within 300 feet of the river. The DNR's interpretation limits buildings to a maximum height of 35 feet, roughly three and a half stories.

However, Downtown is exempt, including the Bridge Place site. The height limit does apply to portions of the river's east bank, where the Pillsbury "A" mill project is located.

Developers can seek a height-rule exemption from the Planning Commission, known as a conditional-use permit. The application requires a public hearing and notification of all property owners within 300 feet of the proposal, Neet said.

Some height exceptions are justified, he said, adding, "There has been an historic Midwestern objection to height. That attitude is very difficult to overcome."

He said city planners work to avoid seeing development "wall" off the river. Still, he said, height restrictions don't necessarily forestall the walls that Gerdes and critics fear most. Paradoxically, Neet suggested that restricting height might actually create more of a riverfront barrier. "You are going to have a wall of 35-foot structures from street-to-street without any view corridor. That's what encourages the wall," he said.

Neet also disputes the idea that Bridge Place would create a wall. So does George Rosenquist, a Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association (DMNA) board member.

Rosenquist said that Bridge Place is the opposite of a wall -- a tall tower with a small base. He said it makes more sense to build such buildings, in contrast to RiverWest Apartments, the riverfront development most criticized as wall-like.

RiverWest, erected in 1989, rises 20 stories but stretches more than a city block near 1st Street and 5th Avenue South.

RiverWest residents won't have to worry about their views being blocked. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board recently negotiated a deal with Lucky Club LLC to develop luxurious riverfront townhomes on Park Board land between RiverWest and the river. The agreement will keep Lucky Club's housing units below their view line.

As for the criticism that too much private development lines Downtown's section of the Mississippi, Neet said there's been an effort to develop public spaces. He points to 500 acres of parkland along the central riverfront and the Stone Arch Bridge, among other things.

"You got to find someone to pay for them," he said. "The marketplace encourages expensive development next to amenities. ... The riverfront property is so valuable, the owners want to maximize profits."

When building up, developers also have to consider historic-preservation guidelines.

The Bridge Place project also falls under the purview of the Heritage Preservation Commission. The HPC largely serves to check on a project's aesthetics, ensuring buildings fit in with an area's historic character.

In the case of Bridge Place, HPC commissioners have criticized early designs of the building. They have called its exterior "too ornate" and out of context with nearby historic buildings.

East meets West

Neighborhood leaders concluded that the Bridge Place project was largely a good fit for Downtown at an Oct. 7 Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association Land Use Committee meeting. DMNA represents those in the Downtown core and the riverfront west of Hennepin Ave. The October DMNA meeting was also attended by Victor Grambsch, chair of the Nicollet Island/East Bank Neighborhood Association, which represents residents across the river.

"Bottom line, they are happy with [Bridge Place] and we aren't going to intervene," Grambsch said after the meeting.

Before the meeting, DMNA chair Tom Hoch said his association hadn't contemplated contemplate the project's potential impact on east bank residents.

"The DMNA Board approved this project because it felt that this level of density was appropriate for the urban core, would bring more residents Downtown, which in turn would support more services for existing residents and would expand the tax base," he said.

DMNA member Rosenquist, who lives at the Crossings, 121 Washington Ave. S., said it would be "unrealistic" to reserve the riverfront solely for public projects. While he says he welcomes riverfront projects such as the Guthrie Theater and the Mill City Museum, he says there are legitimate commercial, industrial and private uses for the land as well.

Rosenquist said the skyline is always in flux. An artistic rendering of the cityscape hanging in his condo has been replaced a number of times in light of the recent building boom.

"Does anyone have a right to block development because they think they have a proprietary view?" he asks. "The Downtown skyline is constantly changing."

The criticism leveled at projects Downtown could also be applied to the proposed Pillsbury "A" project -- the massive condo project slated to go up along Main Street Southeast.

Bob Close, a principal with St. Paul-based Close Landscape Architecture, has worked with the developer on addressing concerns that the project would cut off access to the river. The developer plans to extend 4th Avenue Southeast to Main, which would cut through the project, to keep the riverfront public.

Although the developer has made overtures about keeping the site "porous," Gerdes has concerns about the east bank project as well.

She uses an analogy about concert seats. She notes that condo owners, like fans in the front row, pay more for their views -- but they shouldn\'t be allowed to obstruct others' views. "We all want good seats, and [they can] be in the front row...but can't they sit down?"