Two cities, six sites.
Welcome, once again, to MinnPost's examination of the most conspicuously underused parcels of land in the Twin Cities: sites located along well-traveled streets or that make appearances in the news but that have, so far, not attracted development plans.
The sites on the this year's list are now either underused, unused or in uses that might not make sense anymore. Some hold parked cars or plowed snow, storage containers or discount stores. We'll look at why they've proven immune to development so far, and what lies ahead for each.
The property: West Side Flats
The location: just east of Harriet Island
In his architectural guide to St. Paul, Larry Millett recalls the history of the riverfront area known as the West Side Flats. It was, he writes, a floodplain that faced frequent inundation from the Mississippi. “For this reason, the flats attracted mostly poor immigrants — Germans and Irish, followed by East European Jews and Mexicans,” Millett wrote. “There was once a complete urban world here that included homes, apartments, churches and synagogues, schools, stores, restaurants and saloons.”
All that disappeared after an especially devastating flood in 1952, after which it was replaced with a handful of commercial and industrial buildings behind a new levy in what was dubbed the Riverview Industrial Park.
But now, city planners are hoping an updated master plan and a push by the Housing and Redevelopment Authority might create a 21st Century version of that historic urban world.
The master plan, which calls for the breaking up of large superblocks and a return of the historic street grid, also foresees a greenway running from near Plato Boulevard to the river that will provide both open space and a system for centralized stormwater collection and filtration. While still a few years away, the greenway has already received an $800,000 grant from the Met Council.
“The West Side Flats is one of the most exciting potential development sites in the entire city right now,” said Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who has been involved in planning for the area even before she took office in 2016. She cited its proximity to downtown and the river, the large amount of undeveloped and underdeveloped land and it’s history.
“Frankly, I think it is one of the most-shameful periods in our city’s history, when we decided to completely destroy the rich neighborhood fabric that had been there for so long,” Noecker said.
The core of the planning area is 40 acres bordered by the river, Wabasha Street, Plato Boulevard and Robert Street, though the broader master plan covers 120 acres and extends to Lafayette Road (Highway 52). A mixed-use neighborhood is envisioned, and Noecker compared the locale to the St. Anthony Main neighborhood in Minneapolis.
A new apartment building opened along Wabasha in 2014 and the city is partnering with the developer of that building, Sherman Associates, on another housing project closer to the river. That two-building project, with 264 units of both market rate and affordable housing — will include commercial spaces including a restaurant with views of the river and downtown St. Paul, and the project received an affordable housing grant from the Met Council last month.
Another project, this one by Weidner Apartment Homes, would create 700 units on land between Fillmore Avenue and Plato Boulevard, where State and Met Council environmental grants are helping clean up what is a brownfield.
That recent history shouldn’t define the value of the land and its potential, Noecker said. “I’m forward looking about the potential for the land, not backward looking,” she said. “So the fact that nothing has happened here to date, for example, is not a compelling reason to assume that nothing is going to happen in the future. I really want to make sure we are not undervaluing that piece of HRA-owned riverfront property.”
The property: Central Station
The location: 5th Street and Cedar Avenue, downtownWhen preparing for construction of the Green Line through downtown St. Paul, the preferred alignment required tracks to get from Cedar Street to 4th Street East. To make that angle easier to negotiate and to make room for the primary downtown station, Met Council and the state Department of Transportation bought up most of the block, including what had been a bank building at Cedar and 5th Street East.
Including a lot owned by the St. Paul Housing and Redevelopment Authority, various government entities now own everything on the block but the St. Paul Athletic Club building. And now that the Green Line has been completed and running for more than two years, the property has moved to the top of the list of transit-oriented-development sites controlled by the Met Council. Both the council and the city want the property developed commercially.
“That block is the critical piece of our central business district,” said Council Member Noecker. “The fact that it’s currently sitting there as a muddy triangular field is not acceptable to me.”
Jon Commers, a Met Council member from St. Paul, said despite the location, it often gets overshadowed by the activity in Lowertown and near Rice Park. But, he said, “there is conversation and interest in the development community,” notwithstanding what he calls “a short list of issues.”
Like what? Three different public entities own pieces of the block. There’s also an agreement dating back to when the land was purchased for light rail that gives the previous owner the right of first refusal if the land is used for anything other than transit.
Then there’s issues of getting preliminary engineering, environmental work and appraisals done before all those governments can agree to push the site out to the market. And because some federal transit money was used for site acquisition, whatever is built on the site needs federal approval and must increase ridership on adjacent rail and bus lines.
Despite all of the moving pieces, Lucy Galbraith, director of transit oriented development for the Met Council, said she is hoping to have the site ready to offer to developers sometime during 2017.
“I always lay out a timeline, even if it’s aspirational. It helps me focus and push on all the things I actually control, as opposed to all the pieces I can’t,” Galbraith said. The council staff has done preliminary engineering sketches to determine how a building could exploit the entire site.
“If you go up far enough to clear the trackway, incorporate the skyway, and make sure you have fire stairs and all the other fun stuff, then you get a pretty big floorplate. Assuming the market still supports it, you could go 10-to-20 stories. That’s our pretty ambitious goal.”
In the meantime, the Musicant Group is working on ways to help “activate” the area along with the skyways that lead to it. Between now and the end of summer, there will be both active and passive activities to bring more people outside and into the skyways above. The work is paid for with a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
To read the full article, go here.
By Peter Callaghan, MinnPost