District Council Board Urges City to Approve Variance Requests
Wednesday, February 19, 2020 10:10 AM

The former Sholom Home has been vacant for 10 years.

The Como Community Council board voted Feb. 18 to encourage the city to approve density and parking variances so developers can convert the former Sholom Home property into rental apartments. The recommendation, which is advisory only, now goes to the city's Board of Zoning Appeals. The BZA plans a public hearing on the variance requests on Monday Feb. 24, beginning at 3 p.m., in Room 330 of City Hall, 15 W. Kellogg Blvd.

The community council vote, which was unanimous, followed recommendations made by the council's Land Use Committee on Feb. 10. At that meeting, residents voted 31-9 to supporte a density variance allowing the developer to build up to 150 units. On a 32-7 vote, they supported a parking variance of up to 86 spaces, on the condition that the developer actually builds the 80 off-street spaces promised in its current site plan. The full board added another condition to the parking variance: that the variance be allowed only if the developer retains the existing buildings.  (Watch the committee discussion.)

Plans don't mesh with existing code
Midway Community Group LLC wants to renovate the former nursing home at 1554 Midway Parkway to create 150 rental apartments. Variances are necessary because the redevelopment plan does not meet the city’s existing zoning code for the property, which is zoned RM2 multi-family. (Variances are specific exceptions to existing code requirements.)

The developer proposes creating 22 studio apartments of 400-500 square feet; 97 one-bedroom apartments of 550-600 square feet; 24 two-bedroom apartments of 800-900 square feet; and 7 three-bedroom apartments of 900-1,050 square feet. For that mix of units, current zoning requires 166 off-street parking spaces. The site plan, however, calls for only 80 off-street spaces: 51 surface spaces on its Canfield side, plus 29 new indoor spaces. That makes the project 86 parking spaces short of code requirements. Parking for residents and visitors that is not available on site likely would use adjacent residential streets.

In addition, zoning limits how many units can be built on the lot. Existing formulas allow no more than 82 units, not the 150 units developers envision. (For context, when the site was a nursing home, it had a conditional use permit that allowed 170 units.)

Market-rate apartments planned

Chuck Repke, a representative of the developer, told residents he believes the apartments can be marketed successfully to renters who chose not to have a car, but instead rely on transportation such as the A Line bus that runs along Snelling, ride-sharing, bicycles, and electric scooters. That market includes older adults who are downsizing, young professionals, and graduate students at the nearby campuses of Hamline University and the University of Minnesota. Of course, he said, tenants better love the State Fair, too, which takes place right across the street.

Rents are likely to start at $990 for the smallest units and run as high as $2,500 a month for the largest units, Repke said. The project expects a number of common amenities, such as a barbecue patio; bike parking; indoor workout, activity, and media rooms; and a rooftop garden. The redevelopment will not seek any public subsidies, he said.

Several residents expressed concerns about safety, year-round congestion, and clogged street parking. Others said those problems would happen with any new development to the property, which has been vacant for a decade. District 10 estimates 86 more cars on the street would fill up the blocks immediately surrounding to the property (Canfield, Arona, and Midway) but generate little additional spillover into the rest of the neighborhood -- except during snow emergencies and the State Fair.

Repke said the narrowness and slope of the property limits viable options for additional on-site parking. He said the number of load-bearing columns and narrow dimensions of some buildings makes it impossible to increase the number of 2- and 3-bedroom units and still keep the existing structures.

This was the fourth meeting District 10’s Land Use Committee had with neighbors that focused on the redevelopment plan and its potential impact. If the city approves the variances, Repke said, he expects the first tenants to move in during spring 2021.

City considers zoning revisions
Shadowing these variance requests is the fact that the city’s Planning Commission is considering two major changes to existing zoning code. One would allow greater density in multi-family districts; District 10 estimates that change would allow a five-story structure with as many as 351 units on the 2.6-acre Midway Parkway site.

Allan Torstenson, of the Department of Planning and Economic Development, told the district council board the proposed revisions would allow the kinds of traditional development and density that were more common in the city before 1975. A major overhaul of the city's zoning code that year was "much more of a suburban model," Torstenson said. "What we're considering is much closer to what we did before 1975." The proposed changes would allow more duplexes and triplexes, allow more lot coverage and smaller setbacks, change minimum floor-area ratios, and also require additional design standards. Creating more flexibility in what types of residential buildings are allowed could expand the range of housing available in the city, he said, including creating more-affordable housing.

The Planning Commission has scheduled a public hearing on that proposal for April 17 at 8:30 a.m. in City Hall. (See details of the proposed revisions in the PDFs in the right column.)

The other proposed zoning revision would reduce (or even eliminate) required parking for projects along major transit routes, such as the Snelling Ave. A Line, which the 1554 Midway project is adjacent to.

If those zoning changes were in effect now, the 1554 Midway project could proceed without any variances.

Originally published Feb. 12, 2020; updated Feb. 19.

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