Of Time and the River

Christopher Peters

IN AN AREA north of the new Federal Reserve Building in downtown Minneapolis, a nearly completed housing development known as The Landings is already being dubbed "Eden Prairie on the River" by local critics who feel that the aqua-gated luxury townhomes aren't meshing with the warehouse district's historic nature. Now a second development being planned across the street is raising the ire of preservationists who say the warehouse portion of the St. Anthony Falls Historic District may lose its distinctive character.

Located on 5.5 acres of gentle woods at West River Parkway and Fourth Avenue North, the second project, to be built by Roseville-based Rottlund Homes, is scheduled to bring 96 units of two- and three-bedroom townhomes to the riverfront area, complete with pitched roofs and attached garages. Much to the chagrin of some preservationists and neighborhood residents, that kind of non-urban architecture will complement the George Sherman-developed The Landings, which sell for between $385,000 and $900,000.

"The Landings are a real embarrassment," says Lucy Thompson, a member of the 10-person Heritage Preservation Commission, which oversees architectural plans in historic districts and gave the green light to the development. "There's no architectural reference. It's the wrong material. We're as guilty as anyone else. I don't know what we were thinking." Yet the HPC also seems likely to approve the proposed Rottlund Homes development at its January 13 meeting. "It's a 90 percent go," says Commissioner Robert Copeland. "I am hopeful the commission will approve."

Best known for projects like The Enclave in Maple Grove and Ashwood Ponds in Inver Grove Heights, Rottlund Homes builds about 600 homes a year, more than any other firm in the state. Until now, Rottlund has never ventured into the city. "We're very naive," says Todd Stutz, company president, of the challenges of constructing new housing in the central city. "If you're buying a corn field, the architecture isn't something [those] cities are reviewing."

In Minneapolis, Rottlund wants to erect a series of three-level units with tuck-under garages priced at between $135,000 and $200,000 without public subsidy and no competition. The Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA) chose not to issue a request for proposal for the site, called Down River Phase I, which has raised the eyebrows of preservationists.

"The MCDA is remiss for not starting an RFP process and not having a set of guidelines for construction design," says Bob Roscoe, an HPC commissioner and architect. MCDA Executive Director Rebecca Yanisch responded, "We do not have to RFP everything we sell." The agency has received City Council approval to sell the land to Rottlund for $1.25 million, the appraised value. The expected HPC approval is almost certain to occur before the city's Warehouse Preservation Action Plan, which includes the Down River site, is finalized sometime in 1998.

Originally, Rottlund submitted a plan for the site that Stutz admits was "more suburban." The HPC has pressured the firm into easing the roof lines, promising more brick, and agreeing to add something truly radical: sidewalks. "To Rottlund's credit, they've gone from a pseudo-historifying Victorian style to a warmed-up classicalism that generally works," Roscoe says.

Not everyone agrees. "It's architecture by the numbers," says Dennis Nustad, a resident of the nearby Itasca Building. "It's the equivalent of painting by numbers. They're just using templates."

Thompson, who is also a St. Paul city planner, says she is most concerned about Rottlund's car-centered approach. "Well-designed urban architecture embraces its surroundings. But this development turns its face inward. The Landings and the Rottlund plans don't take advantage of the amenities of their surroundings. They could be anywhere."

But that hasn't deterred the MCDA's Yanisch from her bottom-line focus. "It's a housing choice," she says. "People are choosing to invest there."

Some say that the process used by Minneapolis to approve these developments may be a reason why the uninspired and incongruent architecture persists. Unlike St. Paul, Minneapolis has no master plan for its riverfront, and an all-volunteer HPC board appointed by the City Council lacks real clout and independence. And, says Roscoe, "The guidelines that the HPC uses can do a pretty good job of weeding out the ugly but can't guarantee excellence."

In the meantime, few seem to be taking the long-term view of Itasca Building resident John LaVine. "This is an unusual opportunity to do something dramatic. Few cities have undeveloped riverfront land this close to downtown," he says. "If they don't do it right, they won't have another chance for 75 years."

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