St. Louis Park City Council rejects revised Bridgewater development

A rendering shows a proposal by Dominium and Bridgewater Bank for a development at Excelsior Boulevard and Monterey Drive. After more than two years of controversy over the project, the St. Louis Park City Council began the process of denying approvals. (Submitted art)
A rendering shows a proposal by Dominium and Bridgewater Bank for a development at Excelsior Boulevard and Monterey Drive. After more than two years of controversy over the project, the St. Louis Park City Council began the process of denying approvals. (Submitted art)

Dominium and Bridgewater Bank tried for more than two years to gain council approval for a mixed-use development at Excelsior Boulevard and Monterey Drive, but their efforts have failed.

“This project is not moving forward, and so I think it’s best to just not continue to try to pull this off,” Councilmember Anne Mavity said at an April 3 St. Louis Park City Council meeting. “It doesn’t have the votes.”

Despite a plan containing fewer apartments than had been proposed previously, Councilmember Sue Sanger said, “I think in the main what this current proposal does today is basically rearrange the deck chairs on the Titantic.”

Dominium’s latest plan had proposed 148 apartments, down from an original proposal for 179 apartments, according to Ron Mehl, vice president and project partner with Dominium. The plan called for 17,500 square feet of commercial space, 10,000 square feet of which would have housed a new branch for Bridgewater Bank. The existing bank branch location would have remained on the site.

The new building would have replaced an existing single-story commercial building with a new building ranging in height from three stories to six stories. The project would have included three levels of underground parking.

Mehl said designers had sought to decrease the number of proposed apartments to address concerns about density. Traffic, density and a perceived lack of outdoor green space have always been the key issues, Mehl said.

Many people in the neighborhood and on the council had expressed concern about the building’s sixth floor, he acknowledged.

“The problem with removing that is we’re down 35 more units, and just financially the project doesn’t make sense,” Mehl said.

Council members agreed with him on the main issues, with several pointing to such factors in declaring their intention to oppose the project.

Sanger pointed to a traffic study that indicated the latest plan would have led to 1,521 trips each day in and out of the development. That estimate came in lower than the 1,670 estimated daily trips that a plan iteration proposed in May 2015 would have generated. However, the traffic generation numbers still did not meet with Sanger’s approval. She said council members had provided feedback on traffic levels at multiple meetings.

“You keep hearing it, and nothing much changes,” Sanger said. “I think it is time to say no to this project, and I think it is time for the property owner to find a new developer to start fresh and come up with a different project.”

She proposed the successful motion to direct staff and the city attorney to prepare a resolution with findings of facts supporting the denial of city approvals. The council could vote on the resulting resolution as early as Monday, April 17.

Like Sanger, Councilmember Gregg Lindberg said he did not believe the latest plan showed that the developer had been responsive to comments from the council and the community.

A city staff report contains data showing that the proposal would have been less dense than all but the first phase of Excelsior and Grand and about 40 percent less dense than the 4800Excelsior project under construction on the site of a former Bally Total Fitness on the other side of Excelsior and Grand.

However, Lindberg said, “This is a very dense project. It’s a very tall project.”

He added, “I really do feel like this site will redevelop, but we need to go back to the drawing board and figure out a project that works for the community as a whole.”

Councilmember Tom Miller said the proposed building might work in the West End area or along Highway 7, but he said, “I think the biggest and most important thing here is I just don’t feel like this building fits onto Excelsior Boulevard.”

The boulevard is a signature area in St. Louis Park designed to be a walkable, inviting downtown area, Miller said.

“I don’t think these massive buildings produce that,” he said. “I simply think we can do better. Our city is really attractive to developers right now, and we have had a lot of developments in front of us. I think this corner, for the reasons I’ve mentioned, can be so much more than this particular development is.”

He pointed out that most of the apartments the developer had eliminated from the plans had been intended to be affordable units.

“That’s actually, in my mind, a negative change,” Miller said of the reductions.

The latest plan removed 21 units of affordable housing from a previous proposal for 33 affordable units.

“I just can’t bring myself to support that,” Mayor Jake Spano said to Mehl of the reductions while alluding to the city’s support of affordable housing. “You should get combat pay for the time you’ve continued to try with this council. I get that. But that’s a commitment that the council has made.”

Unlike some other council members, Spano did not take issue with the proposed height of the building, though.

“I’m not afraid of that, and I’m not fearful that the height somehow is going to change our community,” said Spano, who nevertheless said he has had an issue with the project’s density.

Councilmember Steve Hallfin indicated the disapproval he had heard from residents had influenced his decision.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the times our constituents think that everything’s a done deal and we’ve already made up our minds and we’re developer-friendly,” Hallfin said. “But as you can tell from the way this motion is going, that’s not the case. We do listen to our constituents, although reasonable people can disagree on different proposals.”

The project’s history demonstrates that time does not solve all concerns, Mavity said.

“This has been an extraordinarily long process of two years, and it’s clear that this proposal does not have the support of this council,” Mavity said.

She said she would like to see the corner become active, but she said she does not want to see a six-story building on the site.

Mavity called Dominium a quality developer but said, “I don’t think this particular one hit the particular needs of this community.”

Councilmember Tim Brausen cast the only vote against Sanger’s motion. He said he preferred the Bridgewater proposal to a multi-story office building that would meet the current zoning for the site.

“Please keep in mind that sometimes there are worse alternatives out there,” Brausen said.

However, he provided criticism of the project as well. He said he had been disappointed at the reduction in affordable housing units, bringing the total proposed from 20 percent of the total units to 8 percent.

Brausen also said he did not believe he could support the tax-increment financing request the developer planned to request. With tax-increment financing, new taxes generated by a development are returned to a developer for a period of time to pay for certain costs like site acquisition and infrastructure. The developer of the Bridgewater project planned to request $4.5 million in tax-increment financing.

Brausen did not take issue with the project’s density, though, noting that he believes the project would support transit-oriented development and that the city contains density already on the north side of Excelsior Boulevard. The project would improve the streetscape and add housing options, he said.

“Though this development is far from perfect, it merits my support,” Brausen said.

More council members supported an opposing conclusion, though.

Spano said before the vote, “This project might actually look great in the West End, but for this part of town it’s not right.”

Contact Seth Rowe at [email protected]