Resident group voices ongoing concerns about Midtown Village


The former New Brighton Elementary School, which later became a Korean church, is located at the intersection of Seventh Street and Eighth Avenue in New Brighton. Neighbors and residents are pushing back against a large planned development at the site. (file photos)

Townhomes and an affordable senior apartment building are proposed to the north of Old Highway 8, while an affordable family apartment building is planned to the south.

The proposed Midtown Village, as seen looking west along Old Highway 8. (courtesy of Dominium and BKV)

About a week after the New Brighton City Council approved a preliminary plan for the redevelopment of the New Brighton Elementary School site, a group of residents met June 6 to discuss ongoing concerns about the proposal.

In a garage across the street from where the residential development is slated to go in, some 20 neighbors passed around bars, ice cream and city financial records while voicing their qualms to others who share their views. 

Most seemed to agree on the same bottom line: the current plan is far too dense for the surrounding area. 

The proposal, dubbed Midtown Village, would add 411 residential units to 12 acres of city-owned land spanning Old Highway 8 where the road jogs east toward City Hall. The neighborhood consists of single-family homes to the north and west and commercial land to the south. 

The city council approved the preliminary plan following a packed public hearing at the May 21 city Planning Commission meeting, during which many of the same residents voiced their concerns to the city, among a few others who spoke in support of increasing the amount of affordable housing in the first-ring suburb.

The council echoed the idea that New Brighton needs more affordable housing in voting on May 28 to move the project forward. The next step will be for developers to present a finalized plan to the Planning Commission later this summer.

 

Density concerns

The current proposal is to build 53 townhomes and a 204-unit, four-story affordable senior apartment building directly to the north of Old Highway 8. A 154-unit, four-story affordable apartment complex would be built directly to the south. 

Pulte Homes has been selected as the developer for the townhomes, and Dominium has been selected as the builder for both apartment complexes. The city stands to make roughly $3.6 million if the sale of the land to the developers goes through. 

Most of those who spoke at the gathering, as well as many of those who have voiced concerns at past public hearings, live in the neighborhood surrounding the former elementary school that later became a Korean church.

“It is not a real high-income area,” said Deborah Perkins, who lives next to the site. “[People] think that we’re a bunch of snobs, but that isn’t the case. It’s people who have worked hard and built their homes in this neighborhood.”

The majority of nearby houses are single-story, making much of the proposed development more than double the height of its surroundings. Additionally, residents have concerns about the existing infrastructure being able to handle new residents. 

Although a traffic study commissioned by the city showed only one intersection that would pose a concern, residents say they already see a large amount of congestion and accidents in the area. 

Further, Dominium is proposing a lower parking-to-unit ratio than even the city would like, but the Planning Commission and council OKed it because city-owned land to the south could be converted into additional parking as needed.

Ben Jones, a former member of the Planning Commission who was asked to leave it after openly protesting a council decision to change city elections from odd to even years,  is calling for less density in the development. He emailed the city and proposed decreasing the density from roughly 40 units per acre to 20-25 units per acre, to “more naturally flow into the single-family home neighborhoods to the west [and] involve a more manageable influx of cars and people.”

Conditions have been put in place by the Planning Commission to try and create a visual barrier between the new development and the surrounding homes by adding berms and flattening roof pitches, but many neighbors still feel that the biggest decisions, like the overall density, were made quickly and without their input.

“’Nothing has been decided, don’t panic. It’s going to be fine.’” said Becky Bates, who lives two blocks from the development. “This is what we had been told, and then all of a sudden, nope! It’s done.”

The developers were the first to hold an official meeting with residents, in October 2018, and have been willing to work with the Planning Commission’s conditions. However, Dominium has said that significantly reducing the density of the project might make it no longer financially viable, a concern echoed by the city.

 

Need for affordable housing

In moving the project forward, the city has emphasized the need for more housing to accommodate New Brighton’s growing population, as outlined in the city’s draft 2040 Comprehensive Plan, a document designed to guide future development.

Data from the American Community Survey shows that the average rent in New Brighton has increased more than $100 since 2010. Currently, roughly 50% of rental households in New Brighton are cost burdened, meaning they are spending more than 30% of their household income on rent. 

Karen Meyer works at the Community Support Center, a New Brighton-based nonprofit that helps area residents facing evictions and power shutoffs. She noted that even working two to three jobs, many of her clients are getting priced out of their current apartments as landlords increase the rent from year to year.

“If there’s more housing available and the vacancy rates are at a higher percentage, then [landlords] won’t be able to ask for the rent price that they want to go for,” said Meyer. She noted the city’s 3% rental vacancy rate, saying that more housing stock might curb rent increases.

According to New Brighton’s website, the 2017 Citizen Survey ranked housing as the second most critical issue to residents. Before the May 28 vote, council members Paul Jacobsen and Graeme Allen both noted that many residents had stressed to them the need for more housing in the city. 

The Metropolitan Council, a regional policy-making and planning agency, has also endorsed more housing in New Brighton. It has recommended that the city make itself able to provide 164 additional affordable housing units in the near future, in response to increased demand. 

Peter Lindstrom, New Brighton’s representative on the council, noted that the entire region is working on a deficit.

“There were 9,000 affordable units added between 2011 and 2017 [in the metro]. That’s a big number, but the shocking number is that we needed 52,000 affordable units developed between that same time period,” he said.

The Met Council recommended for New Brigton 113 additional affordable housing units priced for residents making 50% or less of the area median income. It recommended 51 additional units priced for residents earning 51-80% of the area median income. 

Both proposed Midtown Village complexes are designated affordable for residents earning 60% of the area median income. 

According to New Brighton’s draft 2040 Comprehensive Plan, “The affordable housing allocation does not mean that the City must force the building of this many affordable units by 2030. Rather, through its future land use guidance, the City needs to ensure that the opportunity for affordable housing exists.”

Emailing the city, Jeffrey Nelson — who lives across the street from the school site and has recently put his house on the market — pointed out that the proposed development would build more than twice the number of units suggested by the Met Council, all concentrated in one neighborhood. 

“The 2040 [Comprehensive Plan] calls for 164 low-rent units in all of New Brighton by year 2030, not 358 in one small area built as fast as possible,” he said in the email.

 

Questions on TIF

Apart from worries over density, there were also unanimous concerns at the gathering of neighbors over funding, as well as many lingering questions about the city’s use of tax increment financing to reimburse itself for the upfront costs of the project.  

The outline for the project’s use of TIF, as it stands, is that the increase in property tax revenue after the development has been completed will not be distributed to taxing authorities, but will instead be captured to directly reimburse the city for costs necessary to make the project happen, such as site cleanup and demolition. 

The city estimates it will have repaid itself for the development within 16 years, capturing $15 million, at which point the entire property tax revenue will be distributed as usual, likely having grown significantly because of the development.

Many residents are concerned by the fact that TIF will be redirecting a portion of public sector dollars away from general funds, and by the fact that, as of December, the city was still working off a roughly $12 million deficit from active TIF districts. 

Both Dominium and City Manager Dean Lotter did not respond to requests for comment for this article. 

 

Looking forward

Towards the end of the gathering, Bates summarized the group’s position. 

“There are enough substantiated concerns, and justifiably so, that this whole project should have been tabled at the last [Planning Commission] meeting on the 21st,” she said.

Many residents have continued to email council members even after the approval of the preliminary plan. Leaving the gathering, they made plans to attend council meetings over the summer and continue to voice their concerns. 

After its unanimous approval of the preliminary plan on May 28, the council was also looking forward to what it sees as an opportunity for the city to generate revenue through additional investment and to welcome new residents through more affordable housing.

“I talk to people all the time that, when they sell their homes, they’re not staying in New Brighton,” said Jacobsen before the vote. “And it’s not because they don’t want to stay in New Brighton, it’s because there’s no place to go in New Brighton.”

Still, those who live near the new development feel that the current proposal would “fundamentally change the character of the neighborhood” through its density, as Jones said in his email to the city. 

The topic will be back before the Planning Commission, and then the city council, more this summer as the developers come back to present their final plans, which could happen as early as the July 23 Planning Commission meeting. 

 

–Bridget Kranz can be reached at bkranz@lillienews.com or 651-748-7825.

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