Condo developers outmaneuver neighbor resistance in Linden Hills

Planning commissioner Nick Magrino believes "privilege" has led some residents to see opposing developments as some sort of "social activity."

Planning commissioner Nick Magrino believes "privilege" has led some residents to see opposing developments as some sort of "social activity." Snow Kreilich Architects

Developers looking to erect luxury condos in Linden Hills needed a favor from the Minneapolis Planning Commission. 

Andrew Commers and John Gross were asking for a few. 

"Eight on 44th" is the project. It would include eight glass-encased condos. Excavation at the site would mean axing hearty trees and flattening a slope. The building would rise not much more than a football field from Lake Harriet. It would be close to five stories tall. Trees would be replaced with 10 parking spaces. 

The deep property means a rectangular-shaped Walker Art Museum-looking structure with apartments as its westward neighbors on one side of the block, and single-family houses on the other. Inside, walls of windows would give condo owners open views to the lake and down to a hodgepodge of funky houses, including one across the street that's for sale. The seller: John Gross. 

Whatever prices the units will command, one thing is for certain: Cheap won't be in the asking price. Gross and Commers paid more than $841,000 for a property a year ago. 

The city's building code for the neighborhood tops out at a height of 35 feet, or two and a half floors, whichever is less. An environmental regulation says natural sloping terrain needs to be left as is.   

The proposal has not been received well in tony Linden Hills. Height is the main gripe. Allowing a developer to skirt the rules is a close second.   

Eight on 44th would be the only building near the shoreline with that kind of height. An architect's rendering showed the condo building dwarfing a next door home.

Connie Pepin is a 33-year resident of Linden Hills. 

"What they want to do is take the zoning that's in place to basically protect the public good and shove it aside for luxury condos," she says.

A half dozen people testified in opposition before the commission.

Walt Pitt of the Linden Hills Neighborhood Council was one of them. Pitt considers the project an abomination of code and environmental safeguards. Tall buildings aren't supposed to be plopped among single-family homes, Pitt contends, and digging a hole where a hill once stood makes a mockery of the system. 

Not one citizen showed up in support. Gross or Commers were at the meeting, but did not speak. (Gross could not be reached for comment. Commers did not return messages.) Speaking on their behalf were lawyer Carol Lansing and architect Julie Snow. Lansing declined comment. Snow didn't respond to messages. 

During testimony Monday, Lansing compared the proposal to others in Loring Park and along the Mississippi River, which were granted permits that go well beyond the two-and-a-half story cap. She said the Linden Hills condos would "blend in" with the neighborhood.

The commission approved a somewhat shorter structure, which had been the recommendation of city staff. It calls for three stories in addition to a submerged bottom floor. According to the approved plan, the building will measure not quite 43 feet tall. 

It's a compromise that's hardly a victory, according to Pitt. 

Commissioner Nick Magrino wasn't pleased with the neighborhood's pushback. He admitted he was "editorially" peeved about spending so much time discussing "an eight-unit building that's below the tree in an area that's in demand. 

"I think it's sort of frustrating the extent to which this has sort of become a social activity for some folks to come out and oppose things," he said.

Magrino called them "an example of privilege in the city." 

Pepin thinks Magrino should disqualify him from the commission, if that's how he evaluates projects.

"I can tell you I'm not rich and neither are all the people that live here," she says. "Demonstrating that kind of bias toward a neighborhood or a certain kind of resident or citizen participation brings into question if he has the capacity to serve on the planning commission, because he needs to look at projects really on their own merits, not because he thinks everybody in that neighborhood is rich or spoiled or privileged."