Plans to build a six-story apartment building in Duluth's Endion neighborhood appear to be on the rebound after a previous setback. The project was temporarily placed on hold in August, when the Duluth City Council shot the design down for proposing too tall a structure on the site at 2215 South St.
By a 6-0 vote, commissioners decided Tuesday to recommend the property be rezoned to a mixed use-planned designation. The proposed zoning change would provide the city with more flexibility to allow for a taller building on site.
But at least one neighbor is crying foul: Dr. Robert La Cosse, who operates the Lake Dental clinic at 2200 London Road, just uphill of the proposed 98-unit market-rate apartment building.
"The council already rejected this plan once, and now the developer is trying to get it through a different way by going through a zoning change for the area," said La Cosse, suggesting it was an inappropriate effort to circumvent established rules.
Launch Properties seeks to erect a 56-foot-tall building, which would normally be a fine fit for the mixed use-commercial zoned property where the developer aims to build the apartment complex. Building heights of up to 90 feet are allowed in MU-C districts, noted Adam Fulton, interim director of Duluth's planning and development division. But the property in question is within 500 feet of a modest-density residential area, reducing the maximum allowable height to 45 feet.
"The proposal is for a building that at its tallest point measures 56 feet, which is still substantially below that 90 feet in (maximum) height," Fulton said, as he explained a staff report that recommended the city waive its 45-foot height limitation.
He noted that on its uphill-side, the building would stand just 44 feet tall, and it would help address Duluth's need for additional housing.
Two other considerations also led staff to recommend a height waiver, Fulton said. "This building is very much in the character of the neighborhood and is consistent with what the zoning code is intended to address, and we are also comfortable with it because this building, as designed, does not have the same impact that a 90-foot building might have on R-1 and R-2 properties, which is the predominant rationale for those regulations existing in the zoning code."
La Cosse said he was surprised the Planning Commission recommended the zoning change and height waiver. "But we're hopeful that the City Council will make the right decision."
The proposed zoning change would need to be approved by the Duluth City Council after two public readings before it could take effect.
Scott Moe, senior vice president of Launch Properties, noted that even a 45-foot tall building would obstruct views from La Cosse's dental clinic.
But he said that if the proposed $27 million building were downsized, the economics of the project would not work.
"We will walk before we have to take the top off that building. Or we'll come back to the city and ask for significant public assistance, and we're trying to avoid that. Unlike our neighbor at Endi, we're not looking for public assistance," said Moe, noting that the project as proposed, would be built completely with private funds.
He pointed out that building on a sloped site creates certain challenges.
"It's on a hillside, and we don't need a height variance on the high side. We need it on the low side, which is away from the dentist who's protesting all this. So, it's just a lot of common sense that's required, and so far, from the Planning Commission, we got that," Moe said.
Originally, the main entrance to the proposed apartment building was to be off of South Street, but it has now been redesigned to face 22nd Avenue East, and that side of the building that will now be used to calculate the structure's height.
La Cosse warned: "There's a great danger in granting variances of any kind for economic purposes, and that is apparently what has happened."
"If we picture 65-foot buildings going up all the way from Fitger's to the Lake Aire Bottle Shoppe, it would affect the aesthetic of the city dramatically. Not that that's going to happen, but it does set a precedent," La Cosse said.
Fulton said city staff don't consider waivers lightly, however.
"This is a modification to the rules, and so as proposed, that's something we have to be mindful of," he said.