St. Louis Park City Council rejects suggestions to delay PLACE votes

An artist’s rendering shows a plan for the proposed PLACE project in St. Louis Park. (Submitted art)

Despite years of study on the PLACE project, some St. Louis Park speakers tried to convince the council to delay making a series of decisions on the project.

Nevertheless, council members voted 5-1 May 1 to establish a Wooddale Station Tax Increment Financing District to support the project, approve a purchase and redevelopment contract with PLACE, accept an environmental assessment worksheet concluding that significant environmental harm would not occur, approve a plat, rezone the property and convey property related to the project to the city’s Economic Development Authority to be sold to PLACE.

Some of the decisions came as council members acted as the EDA while others came in a subsequent city council meeting. Many speakers provided their opinions on the project at both public hearings.

PLACE, a nonprofit with a name that stands for Projects Linking Art, Community & Environment, seeks to build a $123 million project on both sides of the planned Southwest Light Rail Transit Line that would include 299 apartments, a hotel with 110 rooms and more than 16,000 square feet of commercial space. The buildings would be the first to gain Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certification if built as planned. The project would include a wind turbine, solar panels and an anaerobic digester that would use organic waste to provide power and create fertilizer for a greenhouse on the site.

PLACE seeks nearly $5.7 million in tax-increment financing to support the project. With tax-increment financing, local taxing jurisdictions continue to receive existing tax amounts while returning new taxes generated to the developer for the reimbursement of qualifying costs. After a period, estimated at 15 years for the PLACE project, the local taxing jurisdictions keep the total amount of taxes generated by the development.

A resident of the nearby Sorensen Neighborhood presented the council with the results of interviews she had conducted with people familiar with PLACE projects in California and Arizona. She described financial problems at the developments.

Councilmember Sue Sanger, who opposed the approvals for the St. Louis Park PLACE project in all of the votes, said the research indicated that the California project had a parking crunch, that the concept of car-free units did not work because people did not adhere to the rules, that PLACE “overpromised and underdelivered” and that PLACE’s financial stability plan did not work out.

Sanger said the research leads her to be very concerned about the project.

“It might have some good ideals in the project itself, but you have to pay attention to the implementation,” Sanger said. “You have to pay attention to the details.”

The local project will affect the area around it, Sanger said.

“I think because of the parking issues, because of the financial issues and because of the traffic issues, this will have – assuming it even gets built – a very negative impact on the surrounding community,” Sanger said.

However, Mayor Jake Spano said of the research, “The place and timing of these other projects is not the place and timing of this project.”

Given the time line for the other projects, Spano said he did not feel surprised that the buildings did not fill up quickly.

“Frankly, the West End in St. Louis Park had to have a delay because we couldn’t fill it up at about the same time,” Spano said.

To Sanger, the mayor said, “Sue, you usually pick up on those details and I would have expected you to say something to that effect.”

Spano said other developments have had issues as well, such as a developer backing out of the Excelsior & Grand project before the city found another developer.

“I have every confidence that something will not go right, will not be perfect,” Spano said. “Things come up, we adapt to them and we change with them.”

Regarding concerns about the project from several speakers, Spano said, “Somebody asked me the other day, ‘Would you like to live two blocks from this development?’ And I said no. I would like to live in this development.”

Calls for a delay

Meghan Phimister, a co-chair of the Sorensen Neighborhood Association, asked the council to delay a decision until city staff members could review what happened with problems that arose with other PLACE projects.

“I would like you to delay the vote tonight so we can get a little bit more information,” Phimister said. “I am a supporter of PLACE. I think it’s a great opportunity for St. Louis Park, but I am very concerned about the digester and some of the other traffic risks that we’re dealing with.”

Lois Zander, the other co-chair of the Sorensen Neighborhood Association, asked council members to postpone approvals given what she described as the tenuous position of the Southwest Light Rail Transit line. She called a traffic study for the project antiquated and critiqued PLACE’s project in Ventura, California. A visit she and her husband took to the California project left them feeling disappointed.

“We were hoping to see a little bit more vibrancy,” Zander said. “We saw one person, one artist open, and we saw one person walk down the stairs, and that was it in the whole development, and we were there twice.”

Sonja Almlie said she worried about potential problems involving the anaerobic digester or a planned urban forest if it were poorly maintained.

“Don’t rush into this,” she said. “Protect us. Use our money and our city wisely, please.”

Councilmember Steve Hallfin pointed out that the city has been studying the project for years.

The council has studied the development at more than a dozen meetings, and neighbors have weighed in at eight meetings along with planning commission and council meetings.

“One of the reasons I’m in favor of this is we have not rushed, and we looked at the information that has been presented to us,” Hallfin said. “Some mistakes have been made in the past, but I suggest to you that they have learned from their mistakes in the past and they have become a better developer.”

Councilmember Tim Brausen noted that the California project contained far fewer units than the St. Louis Park project and did not contain a hotel, anaerobic digester or solar panels.

“It’s a horse of a different color in many ways, shapes and forms, and they’re dealing with a different economy and situation out there than we are here,” Brausen said. “We do believe that we’re going to have the wherewithal to do this.”

The city’s redevelopment contract with PLACE demands performance guarantees, and the city has the ability to terminate the anaerobic digester or the entire development if problems arise.

“We do have accountability built into these proposals here,” Brausen said. “It’s not the first rodeo we’ve been involved in here. We’ve experienced development issues in the past, and we’re pretty good about making lemonade out of lemons in the event that were to happen. But we don’t anticipate that’s going to occur here.”

Spano referenced major changes made in the project, such as reducing the height of the hotel from 11 stories to six stories, that arose from neighborhood meetings led by PLACE Executive Director Chris Velasco and the nonprofit’s staff members.

Spano said, “We’ve been at this table for four years working with this developer, and I’ve been at some of those neighborhood meetings and heard the really awesome, incredible, good feedback that neighbors and residents have given to Chris and his team about how to make it better, how to improve it.”

Project supporters weigh in

Several speakers during the EDA and council meetings endorsed the project. St. Louis Park Friends of the Arts Executive Director Jamie Marshall said the suggestions artists made at a city visioning session strikingly fit with aspects of the PLACE project. Elements include affordable housing along with commercial display space for artists and informal event space. PLACE responded to calls for performance space by adding a black box theater to development plans.

“I’ve seen PLACE work thoroughly, in my opinion, to engage the community and bring everyone into the conversation, both in favor and against their development,” Marshall said.

John Smith-Coppes, who lives next to the proposed development said, “I’ve been very impressed by the manner in which PLACE has listened to the interests of the community, has taken some of the feedback and really tried to put those in play. I’m very encouraged by the sustainability of the project and the manner in which we are opening this city to other individuals.”

A Minnetonka man said he had already put his house on the market so he could move into the PLACE project.

Spano remarked, “I’m not sure they’ll build it that quick, but OK.”

The multiple votes did clear hurdles for the project, though.

Councilmember Anne Mavity envisioned people traveling to St. Louis Park to see the project after it and the light rail line open.

“They’re going to come right to this station, to this development, and look at the process we’ve been through to see what’s possible,” Mavity said. “I’m very excited about it, and I think it’s a pretty momentous moment.”

Contact Seth Rowe at [email protected]