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St. Paul to approve next step for MLS stadium — despite questions about surrounding development

Minnesota United
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 August 19 — which is two days after the council’s expected approvals.

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.

On Aug. 17, the St. Paul City Council will pass judgment on the master plan and design standards for the 35-acre site.

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 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.”

Bill McGuire
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Bill McGuire

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.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 08/09/2016 - 11:52 am.

    Goldstein knows a Home Depot would have been the highest and best use of this site.

  2. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 08/09/2016 - 05:15 pm.

    Promises Promises

    In the article, Birdoff is quoted as saying, “Office space is thin.”

    Yet the initial plans included huge office buildings with tons of office space.

    Another Birdoff quote: “It would be easy for us to leave the shopping center as it is, fill up that vacant space and we’d have a very good return on our investment.”

    In other words, there is little value in reinvesting in the property.

    So now what? We hang on the promises of McGuire/Birdoff? Because once the stadium is built, they will hold all the cards and the city of Saint Paul will have to give concession after concession to turn the surrounding sandbox into anything relevant.

  3. Submitted by Tom Goldstein on 08/09/2016 - 07:23 pm.

    Hope is Not a Development Strategy

    “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.”

    Actually, Stark would have voted the same way a year ago because he knew then as he does now that there is little planned for the site beyond the stadium. A stadium never has and never will serve as a catalyst for development. Birdoff is going to develop the Snelling Ave side of the Midway Superblock because his investment group already paid around $7 million for the still-vacant American Bank Building at Snelling and Uni, and thanks to the sleight-of-hand by the city and Met Council, will flip a portion of the rundown empty lot next to the Bus Barn site for rights to the strip next to Snelling and St. Anthony, thus getting access to a shovel-ready parcel cleaned-up at taxpayer expense.

    If the rumored relocation of Prime Therapeutics is real–rather than something leaked to a soccer website to change the narrative about the soccer-stadium-only scenario–that might be a nice surprise for the area. But unless they’re taking 250,000 square feet or building a high rise, they’re not exactly the kind of anchor tenant that’s going to stimulate interest in the location–nor will a stadium. And, of course, where’s the money going to come from to build a new campus? Is Prime Therapy so flush with cash that they won’t be asking for millions in subsidies from the city?

    Birdoff knows this, which is why he was very careful to point out that office buildings in the Midway were very unlikely–basically demolishing a good part of the “master plan” that shows several office buildings and a hotel on the site.

    No doubt the stadium is coming–as well as Snelling side redevelopment that has nothing to do with a stadium. But Birdoff’s request for “flexibility” on density is a pretty clear indication that what materializes there could be very underwhelming–like much of the existing Midway Center.

    And what’s left out in the discussion is the reason that Birdoff is “honoring” his tenant’s leases is that at least some of them–i.e., McDonald’s & Perkins–obviously weren’t willing to be bought out of their leases for what Birdoff is offering. Those tenants vacating are doing so for financial reasons (i.e., their location was not performing very well) or because they got a nice enough payoff to do so. Birdoff is only honoring leases because that’s what the law requires.

    Five years from now, a Home Depot might look pretty good in the Midway, though contrary to people like Matt Steele, it’s not something I’ve ever suggested was the solution to the wreck of the Bus Barn site.

  4. Submitted by Monica Millsap on 08/10/2016 - 08:39 am.

    LOL- Home Depot has some stores that have an urban design, much like City Target. In fact, when they proposed their development here, they were wanting to try an urban design. Advocates couldn’t see forward to new designs and technology that can change the way people live, work and shop. Home Depot has always built big box, Minnesotans have always driven to big box. Advocates couldn’t see how anything could ever change, how Minnesotans would ever change. But, if we had wanted Home Depot to anchor a development much like Whole Foods does at Selby, they could have made it happen. It definitely could have met the required 1.0 for sure. They have 2 similar developments in Manhattan with presumably much higher floor area ratios.

    The stadium, on the other hand, isn’t able to built with a floor area ratio higher than 0.19. Now, advocates tell us Minnesotans have changed in those 10 years. That transit will be huge for stadium goers and will produce beautiful transit oriented development that people will love. But, they still don’t like to admit that Home Depot could ever be anything other than a big box, at least not in this neighborhood or in Minnesota in general, so I’m not sure what has changed.

    Personally, I don’t care if we have a Home Depot, a stadium, or both or any other combination of businesses. That neighborhood has been a lively center of the metro and I hope it will continue to be a hub of activity that many will enjoy.

    • Submitted by Jim Buscher on 08/10/2016 - 10:20 am.

      I keep hearing about this “Home Depot” at the Bus Barn site. Where were the renderings? What design were they actually proposing? I’m skeptical of all of it. I recall a contentious neighborhood fight over the developers wishes for an extra tall illuminated sign near I-94 which many opposed. Nobody said for sure it was HD. Some were saying Lowe’s too.

      Maybe if they’d been more open about their design it could’ve happened. Maybe it could’ve even been good for the area. But they blew it. The developers that is.

      • Submitted by Monica Millsap on 08/10/2016 - 03:29 pm.

        No worries that you weren’t aware of this in 2006, Jim. But, I was in the neighborhood and very aware of my district council’s work against the Home Depot and aware that Home Depot was working to try to fit in the neighborhood. Initially, they proposed parking on the roof top, which the city’s PED director said was an efficient use of land. Then, they proposed a 2nd story of office space, which would have bumped up their floor area ratio. But, all the activists could hear was “Home Depot = Big Box.” It’s still all people in Minnesota hear, that is why we keep these dead horse alive with every stadium discussion. But, if we’re going to get positive development that helps the growth of the community, we are going to have to understand that either lifestyles are changing and people will adapt, or that lifestyles are not changing and that Minnesotans aren’t going to adapt. We really can’t have it both ways.

        As for renderings, back in 2001, Home Depot drew plans for their urban design, which they’ve used as a model across the country- St Paul could have been a possibility. Of note, this specific one was never completed, but again, they have worked with and developed some in many cities, such as New York, Vancouver, Portland, and I think Seattle to name a few.

  5. Submitted by Tom Goldstein on 08/11/2016 - 06:40 pm.

    Home Depot

    The reason Home Depot has come up in this context is because Matt Steele is being a smart ass. In another forum, in response to claims that there was no developer interest in the Midway Superblock, I referenced articles written back in 2006 about the interest of Home Depot and Best Buy in the vacant parcels behind the Midway Shopping Center. People like Matt and others who, as Monica noted, consider any large store to be “big box”, then determined because I actually did some research on the past history of the site it therefore meant I was proposing a sprawling, low density retail superstore for the space rather than a stadium.

    I wasn’t, although I’m not sure how a towering 71′ tall stadium is more desirable than a building supply store that actually would bring jobs to the area, perhaps employ local residents, and maybe even pay a living wage. Given the acceptance of a SuperTarget and Wal-Mart in the same general vicinity, I’m not sure a Home Depot would exactly be out-of-character for the Midway–particularly since RK Midway owner Birdoff himself admits that high rise office towers are not going to happen. Somehow TOD principles are met by a stadium (really?), yet we’ve accepted low density in both the Midway Marketplace and at the corner of Lexington and University where Aldis, White Castle, and the Wilder HQ aren’t exactly paeans to TOD.

    I support TOD at the Midway Shopping Center which is another reason why I oppose the stadium, because it will do nothing to spur job growth or denser development. But we’re going to be told that regardless of what gets built there–and regardless of whether such projects have any connection to the stadium or not. That’s the hyperbole inherent in development strategies based on “leaps of faith.”

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