– Pioneer Press
We now have a clearer sense of what development will look like at one of the biggest and most complex projects in the region, the effort to transform the former Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant site in Arden Hills.
The framework for development at the 400-plus acre site now known as Rice Creek Commons is nearly final, according to an announcement earlier this month from Ramsey County, which owns the site, and Minneapolis-based developer Alatus LLC. The announcement included:
Restatement of some provisions we’ve been watching from the beginning: that the mixed-use development will include 1,460 housing units, support at least 4,000 living-wage jobs and generate approximately $8.6 million in property taxes a year.
A first look at a rendering of the development’s Town Center — described as walkable, with a “lively main street and active green spaces” — and a map of the first phase of development on the site. That will include single-family housing, apartments, senior housing, a hotel, an entertainment block in the town center and a commercial block.
Key details on the timetable: The site — about the size of downtown St. Paul — will be developed in five phases beginning in 2018, with the final phase expected to be completed by 2036. Site-preparation work will be put out for bid late this year, and the first phase is anticipated in 2020.
Mention of a $73 million price tag to prepare the site for development, including roadways, site infrastructure utilities and green space. The investment “will be fully recouped through land sale revenue and other fees or charges,” according to the announcement. Cost of the work is to be shared by the partners — the county, Alatus and the city of Arden Hills — with the exact split still being worked out, according to a spokeswoman for Rice Creek Commons.
When the deal closed in 2013 for the county’s purchase of the site for $30 million, we weren’t alone on these pages in raising questions about adding economic development to the county’s already long list of core responsibilities.
In the interim, there’s no denying that much has been accomplished: Soil at the federal Superfund site — once considered too big and too risky a project for the private market — has been cleaned to residential standards. Clearing the land alone was an undertaking. About 30 long-vacant buildings stood on the site when the county acquired it. Pioneer Press reports note that demolition crews removed more than 49 miles of material from the site, ranging from railroad track to gas-main pipes, and more than 400,000 pounds of concrete and asphalt.
Time and economic cycles will confirm if county commissioners made the right choice. But we’ve been reassured that the potential upside is considerable, with new residents, workers and businesses contributing to the county’s tax base.
Last fall we welcomed word that Louis Jambois, former president of the St. Paul Port Authority, would act as lead real estate negotiator for the county. He provided useful perspective in a follow-up conversation:
The risk: Jambois is confident. “The county will do well on this project financially,” he told us. Its investments — including those for infrastructure — “will be paid back through land sales, fees and property taxes.”
Safeguards: The county will have “assurances about what is going to be developed on the property,” Jambois said. “That’s what the framework’s all about.”
According to the announcement, “Alatus will adhere to performance standards, including a land acquisition schedule, the development of the town center, as well as affordable housing, energy resiliency and living-wage job creation goals.”
“We wanted to memorialize those deliverables — those outcomes — in the master plan,” Jambois told us, noting that Alatus is confident it can deliver.
A key advantage — the site’s location at the junction of I-35W and U.S. 10: “But for the previous use of this property, that land — given its location and quality — would have been developed decades ago,” said Jambois, who describes himself as an “evangelist” for such projects. The veteran of Port Authority efforts to redevelop idle “brownfield” locations and ready them for economic development told us: “This property’s going to pop. That’s the assurance taxpayers have that this is going to be a good investment on the part of Ramsey County.”
Economic uncertainty: We’ve wondered how a project so big and with such a long development timetable will weather inevitable economic cycles. In the face of challenges that will arise, “this is still a premier location,” Jambois said, suggesting that it could be one of the last properties affected in a downturn and one of the first to recover when the cycle ends. With its combination of location and infrastructure, the site is “just so well positioned for development,” he said.
As we’ve noted before, this is a project that involves both risk and reward. Step-by-step progress at Rice Creek Commons merits attention now and on the long road to completion.
By: Pioneer Press Editorial Board
Date: March 24, 2018
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