The most-prominent — or at least the most-interesting — pieces of undeveloped real estate in the Twin Cities are easy to spot these days. All you have to do is look for the chain-link fence or the parking lot sitting unused amid the boom, the building binge that has spawned construction sites and tower cranes all over the metro area.
These sites are the blank spots in our mental map of the Twin Cities, the places we drive or walk past and wonder: Is anything ever going to be built there?
In an attempt to answer that question, MinnPost took a look at six of the most conspicuously underused parcels of land in the metro area — from Arden Hills to Highland Park — examining why they’ve proven immune to development so far, and what lies ahead for each.
The site: Superior Plating
The location: the corner of 1st Avenue and University Avenue NE, Minneapolis
For half a century, Superior Plating Inc. used a former streetcar barn just east of the Mississippi River for its metal finishing operations. One consequence of those operations was the dripping and leaking of chlorinated solvents and heavy metals — primarily chromium — into the ground beneath. That pollution eventually reached groundwater, leading to a plume of contaminants that flowed southeast of the site.
Superior went bankrupt in 2012, and a new owner has been working with the state Pollution Control Agency to demolish the buildings and clean up the two-block long site. But it isn’t just remediation that has delayed its redevelopment, it’s density. One proposal for multifamily housing, a six-story apartment building, would have filled the 5.5-acre site with buildings similar to those going up in Dinkytown. Few were impressed with the plan, and the developer eventually walked away.
The area’s development plan, the Nicollet Island-East Bank Neighborhood Small Area Plan, calls for denser development and, when appropriate, high-rise buildings that leave space on the ground level for open space and retail. One of the plan’s strategic goals is to “guide infill development while increasing density, cultivating mixed-use corridors, and increasing communal green space.”
That goal jibes a lot more closely to a project recently proposed by Lennar Multifamily, a division of a massive Florida-based developer, who would build two towers that would include 450 apartments with public-access green space and corridors plus small retail spaces.
Both the neighborhood group and a key City Council member think the plan is closer to what the neighborhood prefers. “We’re in a market where you can demand primo designs,” said Ward 3 City Council Member Jacob Frey. Rather than stick-framed low-rise apartments, the Lennar proposal showed towers up to 17 stories, built of steel and concrete. The purchase agreement runs through January 7 for what Frey termed “the linchpin for the East Bank.”
The site: Nicollet Hotel
The location: across South 3rd Street from the Central Library, downtown Minneapolis
Just across the river from Superior Plating is a site with a history of both grand architecture and urban decline. Now a city owned parking lot and transit turn-around area, the block is squeezed in by 3rd Street, Washington Avenue, Hennepin Avenue and Nicollet Mall. Once home to the Nicollet Hotel, the block was leveled in 1991 and has been a surface parking lot ever since. The city purchased it with federal transit money, which limited redevelopment to transit-related uses. There was little response to a request for proposals in 2005, and the parcel was included in a proposed downtown park as recently as three years ago.
The transit-use restriction has now been removed by the feds, and downtown’s increased development activity has led the city to think a new marketing effort will be successful. The first requirement in a request for development proposals issued by the city Oct. 15: a building of at least 20 stories. The city also suggests that a winning proposal will be mixed-use, with commercial, retail, residential and hotel among those uses. It should have street-level retail and substantial open and green space. The project must accommodate the proposed Nicollet-Central streetcar line, which will pass from Nicollet Mall to Hennepin Avenue somewhere along that block.
Oh yeah, and developers should be prepared to pay market rates and not expect any public subsidy. “It’s an incredibly sexy parcel and the market is super-hot right now,” Frey said. The city is looking for “an iconic building.”
Frey said the project would realize another goal of the city, to reduce the number of surface parking lots downtown. As part of that effort, city regulators are upping their efforts to enforce codes that require landscaping and screening of such lots. That has led some to consider making better use of the lots. Two adjacent sites now used for parking are in early stages of projects planned by private developers — the Opus/Sheraton Ritz parcel across Nicollet from the library and the Shamrock Eclipse site across Hennepin from the Nicollet Hotel block.
The city’s RFP for the Nicollet Hotel site, due Dec. 11, is timed to spur such redevelopment in that part of downtown.
The site: Lake Street, just north of Lake Calhoun
The location: 2622 Lake Street W., Uptown Minneapolis
The large vacant lot just across the street from the North Beach of Lake Calhoun seems a natural for a residential development, with lake views, southern exposure, proximity to Uptown shopping and restaurants and the Midtown Greenway. A small two-story commercial building that once occupied the lot was torn down years ago, and several developers have taken a look at the property, though none followed through, sometimes after opposition from neighbors.
The latest — and perhaps last proposal — is from Greystar, a national residential developer and manager based in Charleston, South Carolina. The company recently acquired Riverstone Residential Group, which developed the Junction Flats apartments in North Loop. It also manages other nearby buildings around Lake Calhoun and in Uptown.
The project, as presented to the Cedar-Isles-Dean Neighborhood Association in the spring, will be eight stories high on Lake Street but step down to three stories on the Greenway and Thomas Avenue S. It will have two floors of parking (with one beneath ground) and offer 90 apartments for rent.
In April, the neighborhood association voted not to oppose the project, concluding that it “strikes a reasonable balance between respect for the shoreland and parks, trails and single-family residences while considering the context of the 12-story Calhoun Beach Club Apartments and the city’s classification of West Lake Street as a high density thoroughfare.”
The site: Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant (TCAAP)
The location: east of I-35, north of County Hwy. 96, Arden Hills
Once it was dropped as a possible location for a new Vikings Stadium, the massive site once used to build small-arms ammunition for the military could move on to a future sans football.
Built during World War II, the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant was used during both the Korean and Vietnam wars to manufacture bullets before being declared surplus by the federal government in 2002. After private developers passed on the land, Ramsey County purchased 430 acres of the TCAAP for $28.5 million and is investing another $21.4 million in environmental remediation. The county hopes to recover some of its investment when the land is sold to developers, returning the land to the tax rolls after nearly 65 years.
Now, as remediation and planning run simultaneously, the county — along with the St. Paul Port Authority and Greater MSP — is looking at a major project with development plans that include a mix of both multi-family and single-family residential housing, commercial and light industrial uses.
“Quite frankly, we’re further ahead that I thought we’d be,” said Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega. “By this time next year it will be cleaned up.” And Ortega said he expects a master development plan to be ready by spring. A joint development agency with officials from Arden Hills and the county will oversee development.
Preliminary residential development ideas are for a town center with apartments, townhouses and retail and two single-family areas, Ortega said. Construction could begin sooner but Ortega said the governments want to take their time on the infrastructure decisions: transportation, transit, energy. “You could have a subdivision up in a year,” he said. “But it would be just another subdivision.”
The site: Ford Plant
The location: Ford Parkway and South Mississippi River Boulevard, Highland Park, St Paul
Mayor Chris Coleman tells the story of how he first heard the Ford Motor Co. was going to close the assembly plant that made its popular Ranger pickup truck. He had just won election in the fall of 2005 and was attending a training seminar at Harvard when he received a call from a reporter back home.
“I thought, I haven’t even taken office yet. They can’t blame me for this one,” Coleman joked. But he also speaks of the opportunity for the city and the region for what will soon be 130 acres of cleared land on the bluff over the Mississippi, five minutes from the airport and 10 minutes from both downtown St. Paul and downtown Minneapolis.
In a press briefing at the site in July, Coleman noted that Henry Ford once dubbed it the best site for auto production in the entire U.S. “We stand on this site understanding fully that this might be the best site in the country to build a 21st Century community that will serve the city of St. Paul and the region for generations to come.”
As with Arden Hills, the Ford site is touted as eventually containing different types of neighborhoods, along with open space, commercial sites and businesses to create “jobs on site.” Unlike Arden Hills, the Ford site remains in private hands — Ford’s — and the company expects to market the land once it completes demolition and clean up sometime toward the end of 2015.
“We don’t own the site but we do own the neighborhood,” Council Member Chris Tolbert said at an open house about the project earlier this month. “So through planning we can let the neighborhood know, we can let the city know, we can let the region know, we can let the nation know and we can let any future developer know what we want as a community and what we expect as a community for the development of the site.”
Also, unlike Arden Hills, the Ford site is better situated to take advantage of mass transit. In fact, both arterial bus rapid transit and even a new light rail line are among the options for the nearby Riverview Corridor.
Ortega, who is also involved in planning for the Ford site, said he isn’t worried that two massive redevelopments — the Ford site and Arden Hills — is more than the East Metro can absorb. “You can’t think of it as one competing against the other,” he said. “I think it really is about the region and competing globally.”
The site: Central Station
The location: corner of 5th and Minnesota Streets, downtown St. Paul
St. Paul has no shortage of development sites that city and county leaders are anxious to see filled. In addition to Ford, there’s the former Macy’s Department store, which is now owned by the port authority and currently seeking developers. There’s also the 7th Street Gateway Corridor, which is under contract with Opus for a mixed-use project between I-94 and Xcel Energy Center. And last week, Ramsey County hired a demolition contractor to clear the former county jail and the West Publishing complex on the bluffs above the river.
But one obvious site that doesn’t seem to have much momentum can be seen by anyone using the Green Line as it makes its way into downtown St. Paul. The Central Station site is what remains of construction of the Central Corridor, the station that cuts diagonally across the block to allow rails to transition from Cedar Street at E. 5th to E. 4th Street at Minnesota.
It was one of the development sights envisioned for new uses in a strategic report predicting that it could be “a hub in the city center, as a public plaza/park linking Rice Park to Means Park, and to the new Lowertown Ballpark.”
But ownership remains in multiple governmental hands. Once ownership can be consolidated with the city and the Met Council, however, there is an agreement for the entities to work toward marketing the site. “Ultimately we will work with the Met Council on this key downtown site,” said Ellen Muller, St. Paul’s economic development manager. “While there is no project in the cue for Central Station yet, it is the next in line and is primed for redevelopment.”