Questions of inequality, racism raised before Minnetonka Council

Neighbors continue to protest Shady Oak Redevelopment, although some welcome the project

By Gabby Landsverk, Sun Sailor Newspapers

Residents of Minnetonka’s Oak Drive Lane continue to speak out against a proposed 54-unit, three-story affordable housing development along Shady Oak Road. The Minnetonka Council heard the matter at its April 24 meeting during a continuation of the city’s concept review process. No formal decision was made at the meeting.
“Obviously it’s a difficult issue this evening. It’s difficult to weigh everyone’s opinion on this,” said Community Development Director Julie Wischnack. “It’s important that each development choice has implications. … It’s important to understand that every redevelopment situation has certain issues and challenges.”

 Minnetonka residents packed the council chambers, April 24 for more than four hours during a Minnetonka City Council meeting, to discuss a concept plan for affordable housing on Shady Oak Road. Those opposed to the project argue it would be too large for the neighborhood. Supporters of the project raised issues of racism and classism among opponents of the development. (Sun Sailor photos by Gabby Landsverk)
Minnetonka residents packed the council chambers, April 24 for more than four hours during a Minnetonka City Council meeting, to discuss a concept plan for affordable housing on Shady Oak Road. Those opposed to the project argue it would be too large for the neighborhood. Supporters of the project raised issues of racism and classism among opponents of the development. (Sun Sailor photos by Gabby Landsverk)

Some residents of the city and nearby Hopkins have spoken in support of the project, and raised concerns about bias underlying opposition to building, which is expected to have rental rates ranging from $800 to $1,200 monthly.
“The racial inequality that exists in Minnetonka does need to be discussed and is a vibrant part of this project. When you make comments about ‘those people’ you’re talking about me” said resident Fartuun Ahmed. “As millennials move down to the city, I think it’s important that we create a very diverse community. I think that’s what a lot of young people are looking for.”

Ahmed asked audience members is support of the project to stand up. Of the approximately 40 people filling the council chambers, 16 people stood in solidarity with Ahmed.

Resident Fartuun Ahmed spoke in front of the Minnetonka City Council in support of an affordable housing development on Shady Oak Road. Ahmed and others questioned whether opposition to the project may be related to racial bias and negative stereotypes about low income residents. (Sun Sailor photos by Gabby Landsverk)
Resident Fartuun Ahmed spoke in front of the Minnetonka City Council in support of an affordable housing development on Shady Oak Road. Ahmed and others questioned whether opposition to the project may be related to racial bias and negative stereotypes about low income residents. (Sun Sailor photos by Gabby Landsverk)

After concerns raised at a previous concept review and open house meeting, the project developer, Ron Clark Construction, presented minor revisions to the project, including flattened roofs and grading adjustments to make the building seem smaller.

“Our goal has been to listen to the neighborhood meetings. We know there’s questions and concerns. We also know we’re not going to be able to answer all those questions and issues but we’re going to do the best we can,” said project architect Tim Whitton. “We have limited space with which to move and adjust the design as we go along.”
Whitton added, however, that the three-story scale of the building would be necessary for cost-effectiveness on the project.

“If you wanted a smaller unit, say a 32-unit building, we would respectfully say ‘thank you’ and move on,” Whitton said.

Residents who had previously opposed the project were unimpressed by the developer’s changes.
“This is a huge building that you want to drop in a neighborhood that’s simply not made for it,” said Paul Burgett, who said he enthusiastically supports affordable housing, but not on the site in question. “I think this is going to strain community relations.”

Other residents agreed, affirming a need for affordable housing in the city, but stating that the Shady Oak project would be a poor site for such a project, for both current and potential residents.
“It’s stabbing the middle class, hardworking people in the heart because we feel like we’ve invested into something that’s going to be taken away from us,” said Elizabeth Miller, who lives on Oak Drive Lane.

However, some speakers pointed out the alleged hypocrisy of claiming to support affordable housing in general while claiming the project would “ruin the neighborhood,” suggesting the prevalence of stereotypes about who might occupy the units.
“I think we’re making a lot of assumptions about people we’re not bringing to the table,” said Jen Westmoreland Bouchard.

Jen Westmoreland Bouchard joined those in support of affordable housing in Minnetonka, advocating for a 54-unit, three-story development on Shady Oak Road to bring much-needed diversity and accessibility to the area.
Jen Westmoreland Bouchard joined those in support of affordable housing in Minnetonka, advocating for a 54-unit, three-story development on Shady Oak Road to bring much-needed diversity and accessibility to the area.

Throughout the project, residents have had a chance to give their opinions online and in person to city staff and council members.
“Throughout this whole process, we’ve engaged our website and our project pages, as we always do,” said City Planner Loren Gorden. “There’s more people paying attention to this.”

Gorden cited a tripling of subscribers to city updates regarding the project.
Among the comments on the online petition against the project, particularly from anonymous posters, are references to “those people” and a potential increase in crime as a result of the affordable housing, with comparisons to the Blake Road area of Hopkins.

“If this project promotes racial segregation within Minnetonka, which is an overwhelmingly white dominated community, we have failed ourselves,” said Farhia Mohamed, who referred to the all-white Minnetonka City Council and said the development brings up broader concerns of diversity and representation in the western suburbs. “I hate to bring race into it but race matters. Look at this panel ­— you all have such lovely faces, but I don’t see representation here.”

Opponents of the project vehemently denied the allegations of racism.
“I agree with a lot that’s being said here tonight, but I disagree that this has anything to do with racism,” said Steve Philbrook of Oak Drive Lane. “We don’t have an issue with affordable housing. That’s not the problem.”

Resident Steve Philbrook joined fellow opponents of the Shady Oak Redevelopment project in denying racial or bias against affordable housing. Instead, he argued the size and traffic concerns of the proposed three-story building could have a negative impact on the neighborhood.
Resident Steve Philbrook joined fellow opponents of the Shady Oak Redevelopment project in denying racial or bias against affordable housing. Instead, he argued the size and traffic concerns of the proposed three-story building could have a negative impact on the neighborhood.

“I don’t know anyone in that neighborhood that’s a racist. … I don’t have a problem with who lives next to me,” Philbrook said, citing concerns about increased traffic in the area as the basis for his opposition to the project. “I have a problem with safety, that’s what I have a problem with.”
The response from council members was mixed.
“The best compromises occur when nobody’s happy. Compromise is hard,” said Councilmember Brad Wiersum. “This is a small site. It’s ideally located for housing, well located for affordable housing. But we’re a little on the high side here with size. It’s kind of wishy washy. I’ll admit that, but if we make it too big we’re going to regret it. If we scale it down and wash our hands of affordable housing here, we’re doing a disservice to the property.”

All of the council members spoke in favor of affordable housing in Minnetonka, but questioned whether this site would be appropriate for a project of the size proposed.

“I would love to see affordable housing here, I’m still struggling with the mass and size of the building.” said Councilmember Tim Bergstedt.
Councilmember Patty Acomb agreed.
Councilmember Bob Ellingson affirmed residents’ comments that the development would be too large for the neighborhood.
“We’re sympathetic to doing something here, but we all know this is a huge building for that site and that neighborhood,” he said.

Councilmember Tony Wagner responded that the project may not fit with the neighborhood as it currently exists, but noted that higher density is the future of the city.
“For the council, this is what I would consider a classic dilemma. You hear neighbor concerns about size and density, and city goals about affordable housing, and you hear about the restraints of the site,” Wagner said. “What we see today is not what we see tomorrow. Does this building start the inevitable transition of this corridor? … Eventually, this area will become more dense, like it or not. That is the nature of development. For me, it’s a trade-off that I’m willing to accept.”

He said resident requests for a park or other recreational use of the site would not be feasible, given the cost for the city’s purchase of the property and the city’s need for additional rental units at a cost designed to new residents to Minnetonka.
“That would be a massive under-utilization for this property because of everything that we’ve talked about (if R-1 or parkland),” Wagner said. “We are falling behind on our target for affordable housing. When we think of the values and vision of this city, affordable housing is appropriate for this site.”

Mayor Terry Schneider added that should a formal application be presented, the developer would need to continue adjusting the project to “find the right balance.”
“We don’t want to get so prescriptive that it just will not work, because then nobody benefits. The question is how do we get the building to be as palatable as possible and not jeopardize the feasibility?” Schneider said. “You’re never going to satisfy the neighbors that it’s too big, but I think you can get to where you can say, it looks nice. And while they may not like to look at it, I think it’s going to be an asset. We have to give them some direction with a feasible solution or we can’t expect them to keep banging their heads against the wall.”

Despite the lack of specific recommendations, Wischnack said the next step would be up to the developer whether to continue adjusting the project and to present a formal application.
“There are various opinions here and I think (Ron Clark) will have to reflect on that and decide whether to proceed with the process.” Wischnack said, adding that updates will be posted on the city website. “As we know information, we will continue to update people, but I don’t really have a roadmap at this point. There isn’t an anticipated step because I don’t know what the developer’s reaction will be.”

Wiersum added that in spite of strong feelings on both sides of the issue, the lengthy conversation contributed to better engagement and decision making for everyone involved.
“Listening to everybody is part of the process and that’s the challenge, is being respectful to all of that,” Wiersum said. “I’m not going to walk out of here feeling great tonight because we didn’t really clear anything up. There is no perfect answer but we know the direction that we need to move in.”

Contact Gabby Landsverk at [email protected]