Praise for ‘impressive’ Edina condo project eclipsed by height woes

A rendering of the Edina Estelle project, which is early in the development process. (Submitted graphic)

A condominium project – called “beautiful,” “impressive” and “one of the best” by Edina Council members – also challenged the idea of building height in Edina.

The council only made non-binding comments during a sketch plan review at its June 6 meeting.

“It will set a great precedent for the quality of future projects,” said Luigi Bernardi, the owner of the property and president of Aurora Investments and Arcadia on France.

While the council agreed with the quality of the project, including the depth of care taken with the Southdale Area Principles, the precedent of height was too much for most members to handle.

The mixed-use condominium project, with 158 luxury units and retail at the base, was proposed at 24 stories that, west of France Avenue, is considered a transitional area for residents to the west and retail and density to the east.

Community Development Director Cary Teague said that the request would require several “significant” asks of the city, including flexibility on a setback standard that requires a building to be no closer than six times the height of itself to the closest residence.

“We believe this is the best condo location in the Twin Cities,” Carl Runck of Ryan Companies said, adding that the parcels in question are in need of revitalization and additional tax base.

Runck said that since 2008, Edina has seen 668 single-family teardowns and rebuilds, yet zero new condos despite demand.

“You are losing residents to downtown [Minneapolis] and Wayzata projects that offer more choices,” Runck said.

With the aging of baby boomers and increase in empty nesters, including a projected 80,000-plus additional 55- to 74-year-olds in the Twin Cities 2016 to 2021, Runck believes that providing ownership opportunities is key.

The location would allow walkability to Southdale-area medical services, Galleria, Centennial Lakes and the Promenade.

Mike Ryan, also of Ryan Companies, highlighted the public plaza on the corner of 69th and France as a core amenity.

“The scale of that space … we don’t think anything like it exists on France today,” Ryan said. “It is a significant public plaza, about 5,000 square feet. It is quite void today of any pedestrian, human experience.”

Ryan also explained that the 10,000-square-foot floor plate of the buildings would make it the narrowest footprint of any residential project in the Twin Cities.

Other amenities include green roofs, outdoor patios and terraces, and 95 percent of the parking would be underground.

Ryan provided a list of reasons why the city could approve of a 24-story building, which included the market demand and need for housing, the increase in tax base by $4 million, the low traffic impact, a quality public realm and reduction of surface parking.

Due to the high level of information early in the process, the discussion from the council members not only covered the aspects of the Estelle project but transformed into espousing on the future of Edina in terms of density and allowed building height.

“Conclusion first – I cannot get over the height issue in this location,” Councilmember Bob Stewart said. “That is where I am stuck. There are 15 items I really like about the project and one I don’t – but that one is very important.”

Although noting that the alternatives could be “really awful,” Stewart noted that the super block in question should be a transitional area to buffer density, instead of contributing to it.

“We think there are certain areas in our city that could be pockets of height and density without being a negative thing,” Stewart said. “If you were two blocks east, I think this would be a slam dunk.”

“It is one of the prettiest developments I have ever seen since I have been sitting up here,” Councilmember Mary Brindle said.

Brindle threw water on the fears that the Estelle project would significantly impact nearby homeowners’ property values, but said her emphasis was looking at the quality of life of residents.

“When you look up and don’t see the sun in the morning – that is a concern,” Brindle said. “If there is another parcel, I think you ought to really consider it. It may be well worth taking this beautiful idea and shopping it around, [maybe] looking at the Promenade. It has to be more in scale with the family and the play set and the backyard. I love it, I’d love it [in Edina], just not at this location.”

Councilmember Kevin Staunton walked through some of the ways that the project met the Southdale Area Principles, including breaking up a super block, the amount of green space and creating a “front door and back door” for the neighborhood.

“In general, it provides enhanced connections,” Staunton said. “I think it would enhance economic vitality, which is really important.”

The perks aside, similar to his colleagues, Staunton believed that the height of the buildings were too much for the neighborhood.

“The height represents a psychological intrusion into the neighborhood and … I think that is too much for the west side of France,” Staunton said.

Councilmember Mike Fischer praised the proposal for its level of detail so early in the process.

“This is probably one of the best projects I have ever seen in all of my days on the planning commission,” Fischer said.

Fischer added that the level of detail may have confused some residents, and that he had received emails asking why the city could let the project get as far as it did.

“I hadn’t even seen it yet,” Fischer said. “This is the beginning … it is not even an application yet. Normally a sketch plan is a few simple diagrams. This one has been different, and I know why. You are asking for something that is very different from what our current guidance would allow. You couldn’t come in with a simple sketch, or it would be a simple ‘no.’”

Fischer cited the architecture, the quality of design, the street-level activity and pedestrian connectivity as great assets to the plan, and also noted that the density of the project would be less impactful than, in the words of some constituents, the “gulag-style” apartments in the area.

“I don’t want people to think that tall is automatically bad,” Fischer said. “Height can bring a lot of benefits at the ground level. We don’t want to just focus on height in that way. But height is the primary issue here tonight. I’m not afraid of height … and I am not a huge fan of what happened in our last comp plan. I might not agree with [a limit of] four stories here, but it was not between four and 24. Four maybe to eight was the discussion point. In fairness to people who invested in these properties in the neighborhoods … 24 is shocking in a way. I understand that kind of response. So it comes back to that transition, and what people can fairly expect.”

However, he added that the city and residents cannot run away from future tall buildings in Edina.

“The met council is defining us as an urban area, and that is just a fact,” Fischer said. “We are going to see tall buildings and likely in the Southdale area.”

Mayor Jim Hovland talked about the need for conversation about what Edina will look like, and getting over the fear of change.

“We don’t want a town to have a growth cycle like a human being … aging and going into state of demise,” Hovland said. “We want vitality. Are we ready for that next iteration of growth, or are we just going to stay the way we are, or are we just going to grow a little bit?”

Hovland recalled one of his first meetings when the Westin project was approved on a 3-2 vote. At the time, people were concerned with an 18-story building.

“Now it is just part of the fabric of our town, the fabric of our neighborhood,” Hovland said. “It is a vital part of commerce and community.”

Hovland explained that the trade off for a tall and skinny building is not only avoiding something short and squatty, but also allows more public space.

“For me that is a trade-off for height,” Hovland said.

Hovland said that a handful of recent sketch potentials have included several 14- to 18-story buildings.

“Is Edina ready for this or not?” Hovland said.

Contact Ethan Groothuis at [email protected]

  • Suzanne Cluckey

    To Mayor Hovland: Not. A 24-story building is a full-frontal assault on residents who chose the Cornelia area for its neighborhood scale. How would you feel if you were obliged to live in the shadow of this midtown Manhattan-worthy Goliath?