Corridor development initiative ensures the billion-dollar Southwest Light Rail investment will help communities

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A drive or stroll along Beltline Boulevard in St. Louis Park today offers little clue of what the place will become over the next decade—or its importance for helping the Twin Cities thrive over the next century. 

Right now it’s a mish-mash of low-slung offices, warehouses, empty tracts, a factory complex, apartment buildings, a medical center and a nature preserve. Overall, it feels isolated—hardly the spot to inspire big plans for the future.

But a rail station on the Green Line from St. Paul and Minneapolis is slated for the site in 2018 (depending on state and federal funding), which will bring the Green Line west from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.  That makes Beltline Boulevard a strategic site for the kind of sustainable, equitable development needed to boost prosperity and quality-of-life for everyone in the metropolitan area.

But it won’t happen automatically—which is why the Twin Cities office of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) is partnering with the City of St. Louis Park on the Community Development Initiative Plus (CDI+).  It’s a way to get the community thinking and planning now to make the most of this opportunity when predevelopment financing is available to move new projects forward. The program is supported by a grant by the Metropolitan Council, made possible with funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant.

Gretchen Nicholls, program officer at Twin Cities LISC, notes that Beltline Boulevard and other Green Line stations in Eden Prairie and St. Paul slated to use the CDI process, offer a unique challenge. The question is how transit-oriented development can happen in a way that benefits the community as well as the broader region. These locations offer high potential for fulfilling the goals of the light rail project, such as providing more concentrated mixed use, mixed income development with better access to housing and employment as well as biking and walking opportunities so that an auto isn’t necessary for every single trip.

Erik Takeshita, Twin Cities LISC deputy director, notes, “If all the development coming out of this public investment is only for one strata of society then we’ve missed a chance to look at access, diversity, and opportunity.”

The CDI process engages a broad set of stakeholders in envisioning and planning light rail stations, working with specific redevelopment opportunity sites, and implementing development project that supports community goals. It also establishes clear channels of communication among residents, businesses, and potential developers.

The goal is to spark community conversations that explore “a whole menu of options for each site that responds to the communities’ values and needs,” Nicholls explains. “Before a developer submits a proposal to the City, the community and City work together to set the stage for redevelopment, informed by the market realities of what’s possible.” By knowing what the City and community want, developers can better assess the likelihood of success, assuring that the work won’t be stalled or cancelled by lawsuits, protests, and other community opposition.

An innovative element of the CDI approach is the block exercise— in which people study a three-dimensional model of the development site and then use blocks representing housing units or commercial space to offer their own scenarios for what could be built. Participants are encouraged to be mindful of economic realities affecting development projects and to consider ways to leverage community values, such as green space, mixed uses, and site lines. For example, property values of land near a rail stop typically are too high to make building single family homes feasible. Nicholls notes that the CDI block exercise has proven valuable in community discussions about development in both urban and suburban communities.

Meg McMonigal, planning and zoning supervisor for St. Louis Park, says, “The CDI process can help us determine realistic possibilities for redevelopment, and possibly plan for a signature project in the station area.” Over the next six months, an advisory committee of residents, businesses, and property owners will discuss how to better connect the Beltline LRT station area to the commercial district on Excelsior Boulevard; how to prioritize biking and pedestrian access to the station; and how potential redesign of some of the roadways could better serve the area around the station.

At the west end of the line in Eden Prairie, the light rail stop planned for Eden Prairie Town Center provides a chance to better serve immigrant communities, small businesses, and the community’s own aims to create a walkable community with more locally owned businesses and a downtown feel, says Eden Prairie Community Development Director Janet Jeremiah. “We like the LISC CDI process,” she says. “It will help us in locating the best site for the station and involve the community more. We’ve already heard a lot from our Somali new Americans who are interested in entrepreneurial possibilities.”

At the east end of the Green Line in St. Paul, the CDI process is getting underway around the Capitol/Rice Street station with a focus on the former Saxon Ford site on the North side of University Avenue. Cecile Bedor, St. Paul’s director of planning and economic development, sees the CDI community engagement process as critical to developing the site in a way that will serve the whole neighborhood. “We want to make sure this becomes a place for everyone in the community,” she stresses. “We want to create a place and not just a project. But the city can only do so much. We need the private market to step up and make a difference.”

 

Jay Walljasper specializes in writing about cities, travel, and social issues. He is author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, and is editor of www.OnTheCommons.org. His website: www.JayWalljasper.com.