Just earlier this year the East Isles neighborhood endured the gut-wrenching disappointment of watching the proposal for a new Walgreens along Hennepin Avenue in south Minneapolis get approval. The project stirred up a lot of debate about what belongs in urban corridors and how suburban-style single story drive-thru commercial impacts the areas of Minneapolis with the highest density.
Most people outside of that area probably didn’t know it was happening. However, even if they had, it seems like it couldn’t have been stopped. The project fit the zoning for the area, so who could say no?
But there was some positive that came from it. The City of Minneapolis is re-assessing the pedestrian overlay districts along a number of key corridors in South Minneapolis. So hopefully this is the last time we’ll hear about it…
Until this week. A pair of projects proposed by two separate groups (one for White Castle, another for Holiday) for a block on the border between NE and SE Minneapolis will be considered by the Planning Commission. The reports from staff paint the projects as benign. But if you dig a little deeper, they are actually a sharper stick to the eye. Similar to the Walgreens development, the chances of stopping this are slim. But it needs to be the last time we talk about this. Period. We can’t afford to keep giving away our best land for developments that don’t generate vitality and tax revenue for present and future citizens.
The block in question is bounded by SE 6th St, E Hennepin Ave, SE 7th St, and Central Ave.
The three components of a grand mistake are:
Transit-Oriented Corridor without Transit-Oriented Development
South Hennepin Ave at 27th may have more buses per hour than Hennepin and Central, but the number of places you can go from Hennepin and Central is arguably higher. Routes fan out in multiple directions (2, 4, 10, 17, 25, 61 plus some extra limited stops during rush hour) from the bus stops adjacent to this site, making it a natural location for development that suits a diverse group of non-motorized users. In addition, current plans for a streetcar would have the phase one terminus across 7th St SE from this property.
During the Walgreens debate, a lot of attention was paid to the role that a pedestrian overlay would have on that project. Some felt it could have been a deal killer, others think the drive thru was just an attractive target to negotiate from but wouldn’t have ended the project. In the end, it didn’t matter because the overlay district ended a block away.
For those unfamiliar with the pedestrian overlay, my over-simplified summary is that it’s a special zoning type that is applied to areas that are more likely to have storefronts and walkable commercial and mixed uses to discourage auto-centric uses. (If someone else has a better description, chime in). Activity centers (like this area) are a prime candidate for a pedestrian overlay because the city has already designated those spots for higher intensity land uses more likely to generate non-auto residents and visitors.
In the case of Holiday and White Castle, the pedestrian overlay is across the street. One street ROW away. It shows the power of where the lines are drawn. And unlike the Walgreens, the facilities that are prohibited in the pedestrian overlay are core to the function of the proposed businesses. Even more than Walgreens, this project doesn’t align with the City’s aspirations for this area.
A bucket of cold water on a developing area.
Renderings of the proposed project:
They sure do make those buildings behind it look nice, don’t they? Too bad the developers ignored the context and momentum in the area in the proposals.
The CUP has a requirement that “the conditional use will not be injurious to the use and enjoyment of other property in the vicinity and will not impede the normal and orderly development and improvement of surrounding property for uses permitted in the district.” The staff reports state that the surrounding area is fully developed, so there is no impact.
Except that it’s not developed. A lot across E Hennepin Ave stands vacant, with a fence around it. Diagonally across the six-point intersection of Hennepin, Central, and 5th sits a parcel that has been the subject of multiple development attempts. The corner of 6th SE and Hennepin opposite the proposed White Castle is a vacant dirt lot that, until a few weeks ago, was illegally being used by patrons of local restaurants for parking.
The proposed Holiday and White Castle projects send the signal that we are not serious about ensuring that property in major commercial corridors achieves the highest and best use. We can only hope that the owners of those adjacent brownfield properties are more creative than this. But I can imagine some will take what they can get, because few people will be excited to live across the street from something that looks like it belongs in Eagan. I’m sure it’s very difficult to prove that the project is disrupting an unknown, but we won’t know until we try.
Lowest and Least Use
Over and over, the staff reports for these two projects reference the existing conditions and notes how the proposals will mitigate shortcomings of the existing structures. That’s just preposterous. Unless the buildings are historical, the existing structures are irrelevant if they will be demolished as part of the proposal.
Zoning is about what is permitted and how those permitted uses interact with surrounding permitted uses. It’s also about the built form of our city. The fact that everyone complains about trying to get to a pump at the existing Holiday station is just not relevant to either of these purposes for zoning and therefore it has no place in this discussion. It’s nothing more than easy cover for a poor decision.
Digging into the numbers, we can take a look at the Holiday station near Target Field (601 N 5th St), which has been described as a “success” for that neighborhood and a pattern for what is proposed at Hennepin and Central. That property is valued at about $2.3 million. Dividing the value by the lot area, the North Loop Holiday has a value of about $60 per lot square foot. Looking at the combination of parcels that the new NE Holiday will stand on, the estimated value of that parcel would be about $2.9 million.
Sounds like a big increase over the current value of $1.3 million, right? Not quite. First, the value of land in the North Loop is slightly higher per square foot, so applying the combined value per square foot may not be conservative enough. Second, the “Red 20” complex across Central Avenue is worth 10 times as much on a smaller parcel. The value per lot square foot for that project is over $730. If the Holiday site were redeveloped at the same intensity, it could yield over $35 million in value for the city. Why should we sell ourselves so short?
What Do We Do?
The next hearing for this project is Monday August 1 at 4:30 PM. According to the notice that a neighbor sent me, public comments can be sent to Shanna Sether at CPED (Shanna.Sether@minneapolismn.gov) or people may testify in person.
What fruit intervention will bear is unknown; I’m not particularly optimistic. In the bigger picture, this project, plus the Walgreens plus the Wells Fargo on Lake Street, should drive home the conversation that every high frequency transit corridor should have a pedestrian overlay. Every neighborhood commercial node should be pedestrian overlay.
And we need to enforce the overlay! If that is the tool we have for now, use it until we can’t use it any more. And the upcoming comprehensive plan needs to acknowledge that there are still tools missing from the toolbox.
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