Group files suit against developers of project they say will block view from 'Witch's Hat' tower

December 17, 2018 05:28 PM

A neighborhood group in the Prospect Park area of Minneapolis has filed suit against the developers behind a proposed mixed-use project the group says will block the view from atop the historic Prospect Park Water Tower (better known as the Witch's Hat Tower).

The lawsuit was filed by the nonprofit Friends of Tower Hill Park. It lists several Minneapolis companies as co-defendants, but the primary defendant is Illinois-based Vermilion Development, the driving force behind the project.


"Those other entities simply own the property on which the project is to be built," said attorney Martin Melang, who is representing the Friends of Tower Hill Park. "Vermilion Development is the company that is spearheading the project."

The tower - which is located in Tower Hill Park, the highest natural point in the Twin Cities - is on the national register of historic places.

And the lawsuit, filed last week in Hennepin County, states a planned development on the Arts and Architecture Building Properties along University Avenue would obstruct the panoramic, 360-degree view of the Twin Cities currently available from the top of the tower.

The proposed development, which is located around a half-block from the Witch's Hat Tower, would block the view toward St. Paul, fully obscuring "the views from its observation deck of the Minnesota State Capitol, the Cathedral of St. Paul, Cathedral Hill and downtown St. Paul," according to the lawsuit.

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A spokesperson for the City of Minneapolis said the city owns the tower itself, and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board manages the grounds. According to the website of the Prospect Park Association neighborhood group, the tower's observation deck is open only one time per year, during the annual Pratt School Ice Cream Social in late May or early June. 

But the lawsuit claims the development would still violate the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act, ensuring the right of each person to "the protection, preservation, and enhancement of air, water, land and other natural resources located within the state."

It claims the Minnesota Supreme Court has determined "the principal criteria used to determine whether a historic building falls under the protection of MERA are the same as those used to determine what buildings are included on the National Register of Historic Places."

"It's been deemed historic because of the panoramic view that isn't available at any other site in the Twin Cities," Melang said. "There may be some limitations as far as when the public is able to go up in the tower. But that doesn't change the fact that it was deemed historic for that purpose.

"The other part is the tower is something you can see from all around it. So it's not just the view out, it's the view of the tower itself that is extremely important. It's such a big part of the Minneapolis skyline."

Melang said it is his understanding that the project being proposed is expected to stand almost 14 stories.

"It was originally proposed as seven stories tall, which would have been below the tree line," he said. "And the Friends of Tower Hill were not opposed to that. Our clients are not anti-development. They just want to preserve the historical characteristics of the tower."

In October, the Minneapolis City Council voted to adopt a findings of fact denying a petition for an Environmental Assessment Worksheet on the project. The document found an EAW was not required for the proposed development.

"Petitioners have not demonstrated that there is material evidence that the project may have the potential for significant environmental effects," it read.

A petitioner had claimed the project would cause "serious adverse and environmental effects to the natural resources (including historic and esthetic resources) of Tower Hill Park and the Prospect Park Water Tower, as defined in the Minnesota State Environmental Rights Act." 

That petition also claimed the construction process of such a large structure on the edge of the Prospect Park historic district could cause adverse "environmental and structural effects on both those homes and on the hillside upon which the entire neighborhood is built."

It also maintained that since a former SuperAmerica gas station was located on the property, and that it now houses auto repair companies, the soil could be contaminated.

A spokesperson for Vermilion Development said the company was working with the city and neighborhood groups to address concerns:

"This is a great project that will make Prospect Park a better, more beautiful place to live," the statement read. "We have worked collaboratively with neighborhood groups and the City of Minneapolis to build a project that is sensitive to the Prospect Park neighborhood and Tower Hill Park.  

"The Neighborhood Association supports what we've proposed; the City Planning Commission supports it; and the City Council supports it.  We are proud to have earned their support and confident that the project will enhance the community."

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Frank Rajkowski

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