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Proposed Mendota Heights apartment building prompts density debate

12January 2022

A proposal for a new apartment building in Mendota Heights is stirring debate about density in the south metro suburb, with residents raising questions about traffic, the number of units, parking and scanty setbacks.

“It’s definitely too dense for the site,” Council Member Ultan Duggan said. “That might work in Minneapolis … but I don’t think it works in Mendota Heights.”

At Home Apartments wants to build a four-story, 89-unit building on just over 2 acres behind the Mendota Plaza mall, near the corner of Dodd Road and Hwy. 62.

The building is the third phase of the Reserve at Mendota Village apartment development, which already includes a luxury apartment complex finished in 2018 and plans for a four-story, 58-unit building approved by the council in November.

The city’s planning commission had recommended the council deny approval for the building approved in November, and it also opposes the third building as proposed.

After a community meeting in December about the apartments drew dozens of residents, the developer said they will consider a list of suggested alterations compiled by a two-council member subcommittee, including adding more green space, modifying the building’s height and improving walkability in the area.

The proposal will be discussed again at a Feb. 2 City Council meeting.

The area, which is zoned for mixed use and part of a planned unit development, does allow for the third apartment building’s density, which is about 24 units per acre, said Tim Benetti, Mendota Heights community development director.

“We really do feel, that despite some of the opposition, this is the best use for that site,” said Leanna Stefaniak, president of real estate and development for At Home Apartments. “There’s a very small but loud group that just doesn’t like development in Mendota Heights.”

Stefaniak said there’s demand for high-end, market-rate apartments with amenities such as a clubhouse with an indoor/outdoor bar. At Home, which owns and manages 5,000 units in the Twin Cities, will both own and manage the apartments.

The building would meet the needs of young professionals who aren’t ready to buy a house yet but want to live in a first-ring suburb, she said. The city called out this housing type as absent in its 2040 Comprehensive Plan, she said.

It will also serve older adults who are downsizing, she said.

But Bernie Friel a Mendota Heights resident who is part of a group that opposes the project in its current form, says the building “will stick out like a sore thumb.”

He worries about the smaller units — some about 600 square feet — and who might want to live in them.

“Instead of having residents in your communities, you have transients,” Friel said.

He believes the parking spots — 110 underground stalls and 47 outdoor spots — are too few and too small, he said, though Benetti said the number of spots is consistent with other apartment projects.

Friel also lamented the additional traffic the project will bring. He noted a traffic study completed by the county, city and the Minnesota Department of Transportation about five years ago that said the Dodd Road and Hwy. 62 intersection had a service level of “F.”

City Administrator Cheryl Jacobson said the “F” is not the same as a letter grade but indicates a “potential problem” at the intersection.

Traffic is “a consideration, for sure,” she said, but Benetti said that previous plans for the site, which included a day care center and restaurants, would have generated more new traffic than the planned apartments would.

Jacobson noted that people have strong opinions across the metro about the many apartment buildings under construction. There’s an upside to the controversy surrounding the project, she said.

“It’s good to see the community engagement on it. It’s good to see the City Council engage on it,” she said.

Mayor Stephanie Levine said traffic is a regional problem, not specific to a single apartment project. The majority of the City Council said they would treat traffic as a separate issue when considering approval of the apartments, she said.

But Duggan, the council member, said the project doesn’t meet the city’s standards. People move to Mendota Heights because it is “spacious and gracious,” he said, and it has low crime, low taxes and proximity to both central cities.

“It goes back to, ‘What is it that makes a city the special place that it is for people?'” he said. “And then how do you preserve that special place?”

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