St. Peter's Church

St. Peter’s Church and AbleLight are seeking an expansion that would add new housing units at France Avenue and Fuller Street. (Photo courtesy city of Edina)

St. Peter’s Church in Edina is seeking a remodel and expansion to include new housing units, a portion of which would be set aside for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The development team, led by the church and AbleLight, a nonprofit that supports those with disabilities, presented the proposed project’s sketch plan to the Edina City Council April 19. Despite wide-reaching acknowledgment from stakeholders as to the need for such housing, feedback from the City Council and neighborhood points to logistical concerns regarding other aspects of the project, such as its high density.

But Chris Dettling, senior director of real estate development for AbleLight Cornerstone Village, a subsidiary of AbleLight, said the project’s details are not yet final.

The project is “very much evolving,” Dettling told the Sun Current. “We’ll just continue to meet with neighbors and councilmembers and make some adjustments, get some feedback.”

Preliminary plans for the project include a remodel and expansion of the existing St. Peter’s Church, located along France Avenue. The expansion would include a three-story apartment complex containing 48 units, 25% of which would be designated affordable for young adults with disabilities and the rest at market rate, city documents said. The plan also includes the construction of four new single-family homes, two on church property on either side of Fuller Street.

A section of the church building that has a gymnasium would also be demolished. But the sanctuary space, designed by Ralph Rapson, would be saved. Existing spaces would be repurposed to be used as common areas for residents, the church and its early childhood education center, development team documents said.

The site is guided in the city’s Comprehensive Plan for low-density residential with a maximum of five units per acre. As presented in the preliminary sketch plan, the development’s density would be 22 units per acre across the entire site. A Comprehensive Plan amendment would be required to move forward with the project – an action that would be at the full discretion of the council, a city presentation shows.

The land is zoned for single dwelling units, but churches are conditionally permitted, the city’s community development director, Cary Teague, told the council.

Parking for the church and attached daycare would be located along France Avenue on the south side of Fuller at the current parking lot’s location. This would include 45 surface parking stalls. A part of the existing lot would be used for the construction of the new single-family homes.

Access to the new apartment complex would occur off Drew Avenue, which runs parallel to France Avenue. About 48 enclosed stalls are planned for under that building, according to the development team’s documents.

In addition to a comprehensive plan amendment, rezoning and several variances would need to be granted, including a reduced setback along Fuller, the staff report said.

Housing for adults with disabilities

Proponents of the project have argued that housing for adults with disabilities is a necessity in the community. “There’s just a huge community need,” Dettling told the Sun Current.

In 2018, there were over 133,000 people in Minnesota of all ages who were living with an intellectual or developmental disability, according to a 2021 report by the University of Minnesota, the Research and Training Center on Community Living and the Institute on Community Integration.

Many adults who have such disabilities live with their families but seek independent living, Dettling said.

Cornerstone Village, the subsidiary of AbleLight that creates residential communities with a portion of units meant for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, satisfies that desire for independent living as everyone has their own lease, Dettling said. Already, the housing initiative has built a community in Victoria, Minnesota.

These communities have residents of various “walks of life,” such as those with disabilities and seniors, Dettling said. “We do that so that it can be an inclusive community, a supportive community and where people can support each other to live their best lives,” he said.

Typically, 20-25% of units are set aside for those with disabilities, he said.

The Cornerstone Village development in Victoria is the first for AbleLight in the state. Another such community is currently slated for construction in Oakdale.

Jackie Olson, who is part of a parent group for those with children with intellectual or developmental disabilities, pointed to the Victoria site’s sense of community. “They live just a rich life filled with activities,” such as bingo night and movie night, she told the Sun Current.

Olson, who is also part of the development team, said she and the group of parents have been working to try to launch a housing project for adults with disabilities for several years.

The church project began after its congregation supported working with AbleLight, which operates under the church’s same body, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, Pastor Mark Shockey told the Sun Current.

“What we wanted to do was provide some faith and physical support to these families in the community,” he said. “We have the property and … it’s underutilized.”

Shockey added, “What we’re trying to do is build a sense of community.”

Community, council feedback

Prior to an Edina Planning Commission meeting early last month, the Creek Knoll Neighborhood Association, which represents a neighborhood of 110 single-family homes, sent a memorandum to the city objecting to the proposed project. Cited concerns included excessive density, excessive height, an increase in traffic, not enough parking, an inconsistency with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, expanded non-conforming zoning uses and a lack of meeting requirements to permit a rezoning.

“This project will have a material adverse effect on the health, safety, and welfare of the Creek Knoll residents,” the memorandum states.

A large group of community members attended the Planning Commission meeting where the sketch plan was presented. Shockey said the development team was “shocked” by the level of concern formally expressed by neighbors at this stage of the project. He added that the development team had engaged with neighbors prior to the meeting.

Another sizable crowd, including neighbors and community members supporting those with disabilities, was at the City Council meeting discussing the same sketch plan.

“I understand the need, I think it’s a laudable enterprise both on the part of AbleLight and St. Peter’s,” Councilmember Ron Anderson said at the meeting, but noted he had concerns with the density and other aspects relating to the size of the project. “We want to be very careful … to not impact the community unnecessarily and also try to create an opportunity.”

He and Councilmember Carolyn Jackson both suggested the development team consider building the housing along France Avenue across the street from the church sanctuary instead of next to it. “It solves a lot of the problems that the neighbors have,” Jackson said.

Councilmember James Pierce pointed out that there is a “common thread” among the feedback he’s received on the project of people understanding the need for such housing. He encouraged the development team to find a “creative, more innovative solution that would fit within the community structure to fit both needs.”

Pierce added that moving to a high-density use on a site designated for low density is a “big deal.”

Edina Mayor Jim Hovland provided final thoughts, noting that he found the reduced setback on Fuller Street, coverage of the building and proposed height “bothersome.” The project as proposed “is something that I couldn’t support,” he concluded.

Pointing to comments made by the City Council April 19, Creek Knoll Neighborhood Liaison Tim O’Neill told the Sun Current in a statement that “this large of a building doesn’t fit in the middle of a quiet, residentially zoned neighborhood.”

O’Neill added, “It was clear with so many people attending the meeting that with this big of a need for housing, the city and its residents can focus on a larger building in a much larger space to help meet this need. Our neighbors look forward to working together with all Edina residents to find a solution for this need.”

“We’ve been good neighbors since 1929 and we want to continue that relationship,” Shockey said.

Following feedback from neighbors and city officials, Dettling said the development team is looking for ways to adjust the plan, such as the location of density on the site.

Shockey added that the size of the project is also under evaluation where the development team is hoping to create a “sweet spot” where the neighbors are reassured while the project is also still financially sustainable. Without neighborhood support, the project won’t have a sense of community or be able to move forward with city approval, Shockey noted.

“We want to do this well and do this right. We don’t want to be the bad neighbor,” he said.

Shockey said the development team has since again met with neighborhood stakeholders and will continue to do so.

The development team expects to submit a formal application this summer and if approved, would likely begin construction in 2023, Dettling said.

– Follow Caitlin Anderson on Twitter @EdinaSunCurrent

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