Edina residents fight to get a word in edgewise over luxury apartments

A developer wants to build a 17-story luxury apartment building on some of the last available land in Edina. Residents were hoping for a community center.

A developer wants to build a 17-story luxury apartment building on some of the last available land in Edina. Residents were hoping for a community center. Frauenshuh Commercial Real Estate

Kim Montgomery is a longtime Edina resident. For the past 11 years, much of her extra time has gone toward a little piece of property along Vernon Avenue and Highway 100.

There’s nothing special about it right now. It’s by a Starbucks. There’s construction equipment being stored there for a senior living facility being built nearby.

But this piece of land is actually one of the last pieces of central, public land on transit lines in Edina. And since 2007, community members and the Edina City Council have been fighting over what to do with it.

Back in 2007, Montgomery learned from an article in The Sun Current that the city was considering handing it over to a private developer to build a medical office building. That didn’t sit well with her.

“Edina is one of the few places that does not have what I would call a true community center,” she says. She wants a public building, mostly dedicated to low-cost recreation, with some meeting rooms. An intergenerational gathering place, she says.

Sure, they have a re-purposed school building with a few meeting rooms right now, but she wants a place where the community can actually come together and feel connected.

So for the next 11 years, Montgomery joined task force after task force, helping to create plans and guidelines for the site. The medical building developer pulled out at the last minute, right before the market got squishy in 2008. After the former public works building and asbestos locker on the site was torn down around 2010, the city asked residents what they wanted to go there instead, which Montgomery found refreshing.

That was the time to bring up the community center idea again. The response Montgomery got from the mayor was, essentially, that there was no point. They couldn’t have a community rec center because they couldn’t compete with private businesses.

Edina Mayor Jim Hovland later said at the 2018 State of the Community address (which took place at the Edina Country Club) that the cost of a big fitness center was prohibitive -- between $30 and $70 million. Besides, a new Lifetime Fitness was coming in.

In 2013, what started out as a mandate for a community center turned into a request for information from developers. From the four that came forward with plans, the city chose Frauenshuh Commercial Real Estate. This year, Frauenshuh announced it wanted to build a 17-story luxury apartment building.

Frauenshuh would also construct a small, 20,000- to 30,000-square-foot performing arts center at the base of the complex. The complex and the arts center would share a green-roof parking lot -- provided the city put the parking lot under tax increment financing and allow 17 stories in an area that’s supposed to cap things off at four.

If this was a deal to get a community space, Montgomery wasn’t quite sure what the community of Edina was actually getting. A parking lot? Under tax increment financing? If we’re being honest, she says, that’s more for the developer than for the city.

“TIFs can’t be used for public buildings,” she says. “There would be no benefit for giving them the extra stories.”

Still, 11 years is a long time to try to change a city council’s mind, so Montgomery and other activists are taking this to the court of public opinion, first by doing some research on the renter market in their city. Just how in-demand and helpful to the city were luxury apartment buildings anyway?

The average rent in Edina is a little over $1,300. The average apartment size: nearly 970 square feet. Edina already has a fair number of luxury apartment options: the 242-unit One Southdale Place, and the 241-unit France 71. Each offers units starting around $1,390 to $1,450. Each has vacancies: 22 at One Southdale Place, 49 at France 71.

Onyx Edina, a 240-unit building, has 11 vacancies. That means the three have vacancy rates ranging from 5 to 20 percent. The average rate for the metro area is 2.4 percent. Montgomery thinks the demand just isn’t there for luxury apartments.

She doesn’t buy arguments about letting the market dictate what Edina becomes. Giving developers like Frauenshuh tax increment financing and allowing them to bend the rules on things like height restrictions already puts a thumb on the scale, she says.

The city has given Frauenshuh an extension until May 30 to come up with a plan on how this is all going to work. That will most likely mean fewer stories, but a bigger footprint, Montgomery says. During the most recent meetings on the subject, she didn’t hear much about what the public is going to get out of all of this.