Saturday, February 28, 2009

Is the Uptown Small Area Plan in Danger of Dying?

Those of you following Uptown development news have probably heard about the four to six story building proposed for Lake and Knox. The land lies within the Shoreland Overlay District and is also addressed in the Uptown Small Area Plan (USAP). Needless to say, the anti-height people are having a fit. I’ll go more into the building itself in a future post, but for now I want to look at the issue from the viewpoint of what this means for the USAP. It appears that battle lines are being drawn, the opposition is gearing up, and this is going to in all likelihood be an issue in the coming Ward 10 City Council races.

ECCO board member Robert Kean has a recent opinion piece on the issue, published in the March issue of the Uptown Neighborhood News. He frames the Lake and Knox building issue in terms of the Uptown Small Area Plan, an argument that on the surface makes a lot of sense. In short, he says that the USAP was created so that the community did not need to constantly fight the same battles over and over, and that the USAP would serve as a “guiding rule for Uptown development.” He warns his readers that the USAP will be “rendered pointless” if the height suggestions are not enforced – pretty potent stuff.

Similarly, Ward 10 City Council candidate Lara Norkus-Crampton, an active member of the USAP process and now a Minneapolis Planning Commissioner (and a dedicated opponent to height at all costs), seems to take a similar stance on her campaign website. She states emphatically that “together, neighborhoods working with their partners in City Hall can make sure that two years of work on the Uptown Small Area Plan and the Lyn-Lake Small Area Plan are fully and consistently implemented with every development proposal, every time.” (emphasis mine)

The problem? The USAP is not a zoning document. It offers suggestions, and presumably carries some weight with the Planning Commission and other government bodies, but it does not mandate that every project within Uptown must conform to its standards. Councilmember Ralph Remington understands this; he recently reminded Southwest Journal readers that the plan “has built in flexibility,” and that “if the plan were rigid and finite, it would never have been approved.” Norkus-Crampton’s comments are particularly concerning, given her current political goals. It shows either a lack of understanding of the USAP’s purpose, or – more likely – a willingness to subvert the process to ensure that the end result meets the needs of a small but vocal minority, rather than those of the neighborhood (and not just their boards) and the city as a whole.

The Shoreland Overlay District itself offers the City plenty of flexibility. While it does limit the height of buildings near the water, it also gives the City the opportunity to provide conditional-use permits to taller projects. The USAP, too, is not set in stone. That doesn’t mean that it’s not a useful or worthwhile document. It is, again, not a formal zoning document.

The rigid positions of Lara Norkus-Crampton, Robert Kean, and other NIMBY-types such as Aaron Rubenstein (CARAG board president) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of all, or even most, Uptown residents and business owners. I, too, want new developments in Uptown to be carefully considered and to meet the needs of the neighborhood. In this case, maybe a mid-height building, done well, would be just the ticket for that particular location. If approved, it doesn’t mean the end of the Uptown Small Area Plan or its goals. It just means that the plan worked. It will have provided a framework for discussion, and if the project is indeed approved it will have been done so only after careful consideration of how this specific site and this specific project fit into the larger picture. Yes, it could be devastating if this balloons into a huge controversy that leads some to decry the ruin of the USAP. But it's a two-way street, and just as developers should be willing to listen to the neighbors, so must the neighbors be willing to listen to the developers. In the end it's the open communication that matters, and it's open communication that's really at risk when the threats start flying.

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