OPINION | Democracy in action: Uptown project is real life example


Minneapolis’ commitment to citizen participation in growing a sustainable city is in jeopardy. As City officials decide the fate of a proposed building project, I want them to keep this principle in mind:

A building is bricks and mortar, temporary and has a price. Ordinary people committed to the greater good is spiritual, enduring and priceless. Citizen participation is more valuable than any one project.

On July 13 the Minneapolis City Planning Commission approved an apartment/retail project at Lake Street and Knox Avenue granting variances to the developer that seriously violate major provisions of the Uptown Small Area Plan. The Commission chose to ignore recommendations of the planning staff and opposition of neighborhood associations.

An appeal has been filed by four neighborhood associations plus many individuals asking the City Council to override the planning commission’s recommendation.

The Uptown Small Area Plan. (USAP) was adopted by the City more than two years ago as part of its comprehensive plan for future development. It was the culmination of more than two years of extensive public dialogue among all stakeholders including citizens, business, planning staff and City officials. The intent was to set policies for future projects and conflict over each individual project could be avoided.

Minneapolis has a long, intense history of citizen participation in the planning and development process. The goal is continual progress to build a thriving city with optimum quality of life. The intent of the planning and approval process is to strike the right balance among possibly conflicting interests including the city’s need for tax revenue, the developer’s need to make a fair profit and the need for neighborhood integrity as seen by the citizens.

Due to the proximity to Lake Calhoun, this neighborhood is designated by the State of Minnesota as being in a Shoreline Overlay District (SOD) so its development requirements also apply.

The development plan presented by Daniel Oberpriller, CPM Development, and Jack Boarman, architect, with BKV, includes office/retail space, a public courtyard, 65 residential rental units and underground parking with a maximum height of 56 feet. This is considerably taller than the 35 feet allowed by the Uptown Small Area Plan and Shoreland Overlay District that call for dense but low buildings along lakes. Standards in the USAP were adopted through a democratic process intended to guide developers in their design prior to seeking approval.

ECCO, East Isles and CARAG boards oppose this particular design on this specific site stating that it violates both the letter and intent of the SOD and USAP, particularly regarding height.

The argument turns on how these policies are interpreted. Some call the content of the SOD and USAP guidelines that can be ignored by developers and city officials. Others call them standards to be used by developers in their designs and honored by the Planning omission and City Council.

This is the first significant project to come along since adoption of USAP and so is a test of the integrity of the plan and the participatory process by which it was crafted. Minneapolis has long prided itself in having its residents invest their time and energy into building a better city. If a developer’s proposal trumps public policy crafted through the democratic process, citizens have good reason to question the city’s credibility in honoring public input.

I feel strongly that we must closely examine and vigorously discuss details of how public policy at every level is made. Our nation is in a genuine crisis due to bad decisions and missed opportunities over many years.

To keep alive and make real the American dream of a just and peaceful society we need to commit ourselves to intense participation in deep democracy – starting right here in Uptown.

Phyllis Stenerson is Editor of the Uptown Neighborhood News and lives in CARAG.

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