The sky would be the limit for the height of buildings near the proposed Southwest Light Rail Transit line’s Shady Oak Station if Minnetonka and Hopkins council members adopt a plan the staff members of the two cities presented.
A large group of council members and city staff members from Hopkins and Minnetonka met Aug. 16 in Hopkins City Hall’s Raspberry Room to study the Shady Oak Station Development Strategy.
The proposed zoning rules would require minimum densities for developments near the station but would not set a maximum density. The plan would “develop an intensity that is transit supportive and discourages auto-oriented development,” according to a report for the joint study session.
“I think the intent is to support transit,” said Kersten Elverum, planning and economic development director for Hopkins. “Equally important is the desire to create a safe environment. We’ve been really challenged to take a station that right now would be pretty isolated and make it a safe place for riders. Development around it gives it safety, eyes on the street, eyes on the platform.”
While the proposed rules do not include a maximum height level, minimum building heights would range from 20 feet to 55 feet.
“The purpose of the minimum building height requirements is to encourage transit supportive housing, office and commercial development in close proximity to the Shady Oak Station platform,” the staff report states.
The rules would prohibit parking lots, parking garage entrances and service and loading bays in front of buildings along certain streets.
“These standards are intended to increase visual and physical interaction between people inside and outside of buildings and create a safe and vibrant pedestrian environment,” the report says.
It adds, “By locating pedestrian entries facing the street, residents and visitors will enter and exit the buildings to the public street, thereby activating and animating the public realm.”
A measure that would require developers to position buildings along the property line in areas would “establish a continuous ‘street wall’ that frames pedestrian-oriented streets,’” the report notes.
The rules would also set minimum and maximum numbers of off-street parking stalls depending on the size of a development and the type of use.
Another standard would seek to provide for outdoor living and recreational activity by requiring usable open space on a per-unit basis. The space could be provided on roofs, balconies, terraces, porches, decks or along setback areas, according to the staff report.
The rules would be more detailed than in other areas of the two cities, said Loren Gordon, city planner for Minnetonka.
While Gordon said Hopkins leaders have been more comfortable with urban-style development, he said, “From a Minnetonka standpoint, this is a completely different approach for zoning than we have taken.”
However, he pointed to some developments in Minnetonka, like The Glenn and The Ridge, that would meet the density requirements if built near the Shady Oak Station. The Moline, which is under construction in Hopkins, would also meet the density requirements.
Of the envisioned minimum height requirements, Hopkins City Planner Jason Lindahl added, “We’re already seeing some examples popping up in the community that would be higher than these.”
City staff members suggested that the cities could create a joint powers board that would either approve developments or make recommendations to each city council about whether or not to approve specific developments near Shady Oak Station.
Council members at the study session did not come to an agreement about such a board, leading city staff members to say they would develop some more detailed options for the councils to consider.
Council members weigh in
The group of city leaders briefly considered whether they should place a cap on the height. In response to a question from Hopkins City Manager Mike Mornson, Gordon said Eden Prairie is establishing both minimum and maximum heights. Gordon said Hopkins and Minnetonka council members would need to consider whether they also want to set limits or let the market determine how high buildings should be.
At least one council member at the meeting came down on the side of setting a height limit.
“We live in a world of unintended consequences,” Minnetonka Councilmember Brad Wiersum said. “While that sounds great theoretically, think of the worst thing that could happen, and there’s a good chance that’s what we’ll face. I think having some constraint there would be great.”
Minnetonka Councilmember Tony Wagner said his city has typically sought to ensure the council has some leverage.
“I wouldn’t expect to have a 12- or 15-story tower here, but if you did have that and everything else didn’t develop the same way it would look awful odd,” Wagner said.
Of the overall rules envisioned for the Shady Oak Station area, Minnetonka Councilmember Dick Allendorf said they would be more prescriptive than he has seen in the past. He said the cities should seek input from developers on whether the rules would be market-friendly or market-restrictive. Otherwise, Allendorf said the cities might “foist it upon the development community, and they say, ‘We can’t do that.’”
Wiersum chimed in, “While I think this is very exciting, I’m not sure it’s a very short putt, either. Some of the things we’d like to do are very challenging.”
He pointed to the plan’s idea of an innovation district. He questioned whether start-up businesses could afford to lease space in new buildings.
“Start-ups spend a lot of money to get their business going, and they want to spend as little as possible on rent,” Wiersum said. “That’s why they start in garages. This is going to be well north of the rent in a garage.”
Elverum said a consultant had provided examples of similar developments elsewhere, but she acknowledged, “We were a little taken aback at first about how optimistic they were that this could happen.”
Minnetonka Councilmember Patty Acomb said city leaders would have to consider the impact of dense development on Shady Oak Lake.
“As this area gets and more and more developed, the stormwater runoff is going to have more impact on that lake,” Acomb said.
She said bioswales – landscaped drainage areas designed to remove pollution from water runoff – or green roofs could help prevent the lake from becoming polluted.
“I want to challenge us to think about that because water quality is becoming such a big issue,” Acomb said.
Minnetonka Mayor Terry Schneider said the cities should ensure that affordable housing is able to develop in the area as well.
“It’s a little counterproductive to getting value out of this from the density perspective, but I don’t think it can be ignored,” Schneider said.
The members of the two council agreed to study the station area zoning further. Planning commissions in the two cities have also met jointly to discuss the potential regulations.
Contact Seth Rowe at [email protected]