The St. Paul City Council was feeling rushed.
It was the summer of 2015, and a key part of the package designed to attract a Major League Soccer franchise to the city was a demonstration of support from elected officials. Unity of purpose among the mayor, the city council, the county council and legislators would present a stark contrast to the mixed message coming out of Minneapolis.
So on Aug. 26, 2015, the council was to adopt a resolution welcoming the pending MLS franchise to a site near the corner of University and Snelling avenues. The resolution would not only brag about the site and all the city had to offer, it would pledge to find a way to pay for infrastructure improvements and endorse the tax benefits sought by the team that some Minneapolis leaders had specifically opposed.
But Council President Russ Stark wanted more. He wanted a council statement that the city’s support wasn’t unequivocal, assurances that the promises made by project backers would be kept.
So — in addition to language that soccer team owners alone would pay to build and operate the stadium — Stark asked that the resolution include a stipulation saying the council’s support was contingent on the stadium triggering redevelopment of the ’60s-era strip mall next door. The city would support the plan, “so long as … the city has strong, specific evidence that the stadium and public infrastructure investments will help catalyse additional investments on the Midway Shopping Center site…” the resolution stated.
“If this was just going to be a stadium on the back of the existing shopping center and not a lot else was going to change, its value is much less to the city,” Stark said at the time.
Now, a year later, the current council is preparing to vote on the next steps toward that stadium plan. On Aug. 17, it will pass judgment on the master plan and design standards for the 35-acre site, which includes both an underused Metro Transit property and the RK Midway Shopping Center.
All the moves are expected to pass, but all will pass without the key condition set forth in last summer’s resolution. That is, there does not yet exist “strong, specific evidence” that the stadium will lead the homely shopping center to be redeveloped into office towers, apartments, a hotel, retail and open space.
It’s a fact not lost on stadium opponents. “You should keep your word,” said Tom Goldstein. “If anything, we see a lack of any evidence that there will be any development.”
The current site plan, Goldstein noted, shows only the stadium, surface parking lots to its east and west and the remnants of the shopping center.
Rick Birdoff, owner of RK Midway, said that site plan Goldstein referenced is short-term and a worst-case scenario — the minimum development that would be in place when the stadium opens in spring of 2018. He said he must honor current leases of tenants, including a fast-food and a sit down restaurant along the University Avenue edge of the property. And he said he doesn’t want to kick out revenue-producing tenants until he has replacements lined up.
But Birdoff said he remains committed to a redevelopment that might someday resemble the architectural renderings released earlier in the year showing mid-rise towers, wide streets and sidewalks and two large parks.
While Birdoff told the council he has received lots of interest from potential tenants, he said the office market is “thin” in the Midway area. That said, Birdoff said he is still convinced that the soccer stadium will be a catalyst for the redevelopment that his company has been hoping to do for many years.
Asked Stark: “Why should we be hopeful and trusting that this is going to work out?”
A “little” leap of faith
Stark said while he is still committed to the 2015 language, he now realizes that the development faces a “chicken and egg” situation. “People committing to be part of the project require the soccer stadium to be fully approved and starting construction,” he said. But that can’t happen until the city makes the approvals before the council.
But Stark wanted reassurances that once the stadium is approved, the shopping center redevelopment will move ahead. Birdoff said his company is tearing down income-producing buildings, including a supermarket, to make way for the northern portion of the stadium and wouldn’t do that without some belief that something will move in to replace that income.
“It would be easy for us to leave the shopping center as it, fill up that vacant space and we’d have a very good return on our investment,” he said. But with the addition of light rail and the A-Line bus rapid transit line, “we think we can take this site to a different level.” He said he expects the first projects to be on the Snelling Avenue side of the property, which has the highest visibility.
But Birdoff stressed that without the stadium, it might not happen: “The stadium is a critical aspect of the redevelopment of the Midway Shopping Center.”
Stark said he intended to vote for the approval of the master plan and other aspects of the project before redevelopment is assured, calling it “a little bit of a leap of faith.” And though the project is the best hope for an area that has been starving for some improvements for decade, he said, he would have voted no last year had the stadium been the only project planned.
Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who joined the council this year and did not take part in last summer’s resolution, wasn’t as comfortable with moving ahead with a lack of evidence about the development. “It might just be that I’m a little afraid of heights, but the leap of faith is a little bit of a big leap for me right now,” she said.
Jonathan Sage-Martinson, St. Paul’s planning and economic development director, said there has been an uptick in interest about the Snelling-Midway area since the soccer stadium was announced last fall. But like Stark, he said the approvals coming this month are crucial. If the council approves, the team can complete the design work and move ahead with construction.
“It’s made the sight that much more interesting,” he said Monday. “People see movement happening that it’s an exciting place to be for development.”
On Sunday, the soccer news website Fiftyfive.one reported that Prime Theraputics was considering relocating its offices from Eagan and Bloomington to a single campus. That could provide the significant anchor that Birdoff said would allow the site to hold the mid-rise office buildings shown in architectural renderings.
Birdoff alluded to just such a tenant in his comments to the council. “I think for the office component, the answer would be a single user that wants to create a campus environment and an identity for themselves at a location that is unique in terms of transportation options,” he said. “And we have been discussing this site with such a potential user.”
So about that tax break …
The council vote is a key milestone in the process. It will allow the stadium project to break ground. But an equally important step that could delay or halt the project has yet to be taken — the passage of a property tax break contained in a tax bill that was vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton in June for reasons that had nothing to do with the stadium.
While Dayton and legislative leaders expect that it will pass again should a special session of the Legislature be convened, they’ve yet to agree if or when a special session will take place, and there is a chance that it won’t happen at all.
But if principal team owner Bill McGuire is concerned about the tax provision, which was sought by the team, he didn’t show it last week during his appearance before the St. Paul City Council.
“Obviously, everything has to start with something and this piece is obviously an integral piece,” McGuire said. “We have also had very supportive comments from the caucus heads and other legislators and that includes those who passed the tax bill relating to this property … endorsing the project and saying it will get done.”
McGuire said the owners and his staff that now runs the Minnesota United in the lower-level North American Soccer League “are moving ahead and acting every day on the good faith that they and the governor, who has also expressed support, will move this ahead.”
McGuire also gave strong hints that the team could join the MLS next spring for the 2017 season, a season that would be played in a temporary home, probably TCF Bank Stadium.
McGuire said he attended the MLS all-star game in July in San Jose, where league Commissioner Don Garber said that a new franchise in Atlanta would begin play next season and “alluded to a forthcoming announcement about other possible participants in 2017.”
“It has been largely speculated that that is indeed Minnesota,” McGuire said. “I can’t say one way or the other just yet, but at the appropriate time there will be things and we are acting in concert with an ability to play next year if that comes about.”
After the Minnesota United’s home game Saturday, the team handed out cards to fans leaving a game in Blaine asking them to “save the date” of Aug. 19 — which is two days after the council’s expected approvals. (UPDATE: The team posted a registration form Tuesday on its webpage for a celebration at Union Depot that evening from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. )
When Council Member Jane Prince said she felt rushed by the process, McGuire said he feels rushed as well. “Certainly we are following a timeline partially set by the league in terms of getting something done,” he said. “We are all working hard, I promise you, and expending considerable resources to have this ready to go and make it happen.”
Are transit estimates overly optimistic?
Prince expressed concerns that the expected use of transit and shuttles to get fans to the new stadium are not realistic. An environmental report for the entire 35 acres includes a projection that 80 percent of the 20,000 fans arriving for games will do so on light rail, bus rapid transit, regular bus routes or on shuttle buses from remote parking.
Only 10 percent are expected to drive and park on site, with another 10 percent biking, walking or riding charter buses from outside the area or arriving via private shuttles from restaurants or other sponsors.
“I continue to feel we don’t have enough information to commit to these optimistic projections,” Prince said, especially after reading about critical comments about the environmental report, first reported in the St. Paul weekly newspaper The Villager.
“Those assumptions appear to be tilted heavily to make the case that very few in any roadway improvements are needed from this massive traffic generator,” wrote Met Council staff in its commentary on the plan. The council asked the city to address questions such as the willingness of riders to use crowded trains (dubbed “crush load”); the impact of 150 shuttle buses on area roads; the location of shuttle drop offs; the potential of long lines of cars trying to exit I-94 pregame; the safety of pedestrians walking to transit stations; and how fans arriving to a midweek game would compete for transit capacity with regular commuters.
State Department of Transportation staff wrote that MnDOT would allow no negative impact on I-94 from cars backed up to get to the stadium area, and that it is likely infrastructure improvements will be needed on surface roads — including Snelling, which is a trunk highway and significant freight route. “Snelling Avenue and I-94 are heavily congested during peak periods and cannot accommodate significant growth in traffic without large investments,” MNDOT staff wrote.
Metro Transit is conducting its own study of how game traffic would be handled at the nearby transit platforms. And Sage-Martinson told Met Council Member Jon Commers in an email that the questions raised would be answered in a Transportation Management Plan process that is ongoing. He invited both Metro Transit and the state to be members of the work group forging what he described as a “very tangible next step.”
The city expects to give final approval to the environmental plan in the next few days.
Birdoff deferred to transportation experts, but McGuire said he is optimistic that most fans will not arrive at the stadium in cars. “We remain convinced based on everything we hear that public transportation will be a big part of this,” McGuire told the council.