Developer Dan Hunt presented a slightly altered plan for the redevelopment of Eliot School in St. Louis Park, but its fate remains uncertain.
A plan for two 72-unit apartment buildings and three single-family homes on the site of the shuttered Eliot School, 6800 Cedar Lake Road S., failed to attract the necessary five council votes to proceed at an Oct. 15 meeting.
However, the council voted to reconsider the concept at a Nov. 5 meeting. Councilmember Jake Spano indicated he had a change of heart on the matter after learning no developers had made an offer on the property for a development made up entirely of single-family housing – a scenario supported by some neighbors in the Eliot Neighborhood.
Hunt discussed his proposal further with council members at a special work session Nov. 19. He suggested reducing the apartment buildings from a total of 144 apartments to a total of 138 apartment units in two buildings. The buildings would contain six three-bedroom units.
Originally, no three-bedroom units had been proposed. As in his original proposal, he would still build three single-family homes.
Council members who voted against the development in October indicated concern about approving a comprehensive plan guiding most of the site as high-density residential instead of medium-density residential, as recommended by a document of guidelines developed with the assistance of neighbors. At the Nov. 19 meeting, Hunt defended his proposal.
“We looked at the guidelines and said there’s some things that don’t work there and some things that do,” Hunt said. “We made buildings that fit better into the neighborhood than the guidelines allowed.”
For example, Hunt said he agreed to limit the building heights to three stories even though apartment buildings of four to five stories would be less expensive per unit to build.
Because city code calculates density based on the lot size, Hunt said his project could have met the maximum of 30 units per acre allowed for a medium-density residential guiding if he did not divide the property into additional lots for the three single-family homes.
Because the home lots would reduce the size of the lot on which the apartment buildings would sit, Hunt said the apartment buildings would be considered higher density under city code if the single-family homes were built even if the size of the apartment buildings did not change.
Community Development Director Kevin Locke backed up Hunt’s interpretation of city code, saying the “extremely low-density” single-family homes would alter the calculations for the rest of the site. Locke noted the council could approve a high-density comprehensive plan designation while creating a zoning designation of a lower density for the site, though.
Locke also added, “All of these are rules that you guys set, so if you want to change them you can.”
In light of the additional information, some council members indicated a willingness to approve the higher density comprehensive plan designation.
“Changing the comprehensive plan does not commit us to any zoning district,” Councilmember Sue Santa said.
Agreed Councilmember Julia Ross, “I think we have a lot of power. I’m certainly not afraid to exercise it.”
Although Santa described herself as “tentative on the whole thing,” she said she liked the idea of including three-bedroom units that would be conducive to families.
“Based on that, I’m cautiously optimistically positive,” Santa said.
Mayor Jeff Jacobs said the council has been seeking to add more single-family housing in the city for 25 years with limited success.
“The reality is this isn’t Sunfish Lake,” Jacobs said.
He indicated land prices in St. Louis Park make building single-family housing economically unattractive to developers, who need higher density housing to make their investments worthwhile.
“We’re kind of victims of our own success and location because St. Louis Park is a really desirable place to live,” Jacobs said. “We’ve seen a transition from predominantly single-family homes to multifamily.”
He indicated a willingness to approve the higher density designation considering the city would still retain other controls on what is built on the Eliot School property.
But other council members expressed more reluctance regarding the potential approval. With five votes necessary to change the comprehensive plan, the revised proposal’s prospects are in doubt.
Councilmember Anne Mavity called the proposed density “very comfortable” but said she is nevertheless concerned about approving a high-density residential designation. She said she worried the designation could raise expectations in the development community that St. Louis Park would be willing to consider denser projects.
“We have a lot of land potential for development coming soon,” Mavity said. “What I don’t want to do is to go through this on every single one. I want to be clear in giving guidance.”
She said the council should respect the guidelines residents helped develop.
“We can overrule all our task forces and committees and do whatever we want, but I think part of the spirit of what we do is to say what do you want and be stewards of that,” Mavity said. “I think doing something completely different is not respecting the spirit of that.”
However, Ross said the guidelines were just that, and “guidelines are a little wishy washy.”
Ross added, “I don’t think we should be in the business of giving developers ordinances from residents because there are a lot of variables.”
Councilmember Steve Hallfin wondered if the developer could fit into a medium-density residential designation if the single-family homes sat on smaller lots or contained two houses instead of three.
Hunt said the calculation for the apartment buildings would be closer but would still not be considered medium-density.
Hallfin added he preferred to see all single-family housing and suggested the city buy the property and sell each lot individually for single-family housing.
Santa warned, “It would cost us over $1 million.”
But Councilmember Susan Sanger said she also liked the idea of exploring city financial assistance for single-family housing.
If all single-family housing were not possible, Hallfin said, “I would want to stick with the guidelines of medium density, period.”
When Sanger asked Hunt if he could make a medium-density approval work, Hunt said, “We’d make it a less expensive project.”
He suggested the developer could cut back on landscaping and exterior design.
“The less we’re allowed to do, the less we can do,” Hunt said.
Sanger said she did not want to approve a density beyond the neighborhood-developed guidelines and suggested Hunt had agreed to pay too much for the property.
“What I took out of your comments was you and the school district decided what’s the best and highest use of this land,” Sanger said. “It’s not your decision to make about what’s the highest and best use of the land. I think there’s been too high a price negotiated for this piece of property.”
The St. Louis Park School Board has entered into a $2.05 million contract with Hunt regarding the Eliot School property. The deal is dependent upon government approvals.