BZA Approves Density, Parking Variances
Wednesday, February 19, 2020 10:10 AM

sholom_1796_2.jpg
The former Sholom Home has been vacant for 10 years.

Renovation of the former Sholom Home into rental apartments moved one step closer Feb. 24 when the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals approved density and parking variances. The BZA approval, by identical 4-0 votes, followed the recommendation of the Como Community Council. In doing so, the BZA overruled city staff findings, which opposed both variance requests.

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.)

Zoning, for example, limits how many units can be built on the 2.6-acre lot. Existing formulas allow no more than 82 units, not the 150 units developers envision. For the proposed mix of apartments, current zoning also requires 166 off-street parking spaces. The redevelopment 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.

Staff recommend fewer apartments
City staff said the density request failed to meet four of the six necessary conditions for a variance, and that the parking request failed to meet five of the six conditions. The staff report cited the likelihood that the project would cause undue parking congestion and “alter the essential character of the surrounding area.”

The staff report said the proposal to create 150 units “is unreasonable, because the building can be converted to a less-intensive multi-family dwelling that would be more appropriate for the size of the lot that it’s located on.” The report also said the developer created the need for the parking variance by choosing to build so many units, and could eliminate the need for both variances simply by building only 80 studio and one-bedroom units.

But Chuck Repke, a representative of the developer, said reducing the number of units -- or demolishing one building to create more on-site parking, as one BZA commissioner suggested -- would make the project financially unfeasible. He pointed out that the project is not starting from scratch, but is hoping to repurpose a long-standing building that fits the scale and history of the surrounding residential neighborhood.

Michael Kuchta, executive director of the community council, noted the community’s need for housing, and told the BZA that a vacant building -- which the former Sholom Home has been for a decade -- doesn’t meet that need, or fit the character of the neighborhood, either. He pointed out that the city is in the process of revising its zoning code in a way that could allow up to 350 apartments on the site, without a variance -- an option that residents say they oppose because it would be even more detrimental to the essential character of the neighborhood. Finally, he said, residents understand that although the parking impact on nearby streets is not ideal, it is worth the trade-off after a series of owners have failed to renovate the property.

The community council board voted unanimously Feb. 18 to support the variance requests. That vote followed recommendations made by the council's Land Use Committee on Feb. 10. At that meeting, residents voted 31-9 to support 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.)

Market-rate apartments planned

Midway Community Group 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 context, when the site was a nursing home, it had a conditional use permit that allowed 170 units.)

Repke told residents at the Land Use meeting 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 and Feb. 24.

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