Many Columbia Heights residents have been watching two major construction projects unfold in recent months, as workers build the city/school two-gymnasium project on 49th Avenue NE (at the high school) and the city’s public safety building on 41st Avenue NE, west of Central Avenue.
Soon, they’ll have two more new buildings to watch. The first is a senior memory care/assisted living building on 37th Avenue, at the former site of Apache Theaters. The first developer, Comforts of Home, started the project—workers poured the foundation, and built a wall for the garages and an elevator shaft—but stalled when Comforts of Home ran into financial difficulties.
According to Community Development Director Scott Clark, another company, New Perspectives, bought the land and took out building permits in December. New Perspectives’ project includes more units: 76, as opposed to Comforts of Homes’ proposed 52. The city council visited one of New Perspectives’ projects in Waconia, Clark said, and was impressed by its quality.
Another new development will be Sonic, a fast-food drive through restaurant. The company plans to build its fourth Minnesota store next to Taco Bell on Central Avenue north of 49th.
Sonic is similar to an A&W drive in; in warm months, carhops on roller skates deliver food to cars, said Assistant Community Development Director Sheila Cartney, who added, “They’ve been very popular in other places; people wait in line to get into them.” Access to the drive-through will be through the alley behind Taco Bell, she said, not off Central Avenue.
One city-owned lot—the former Burger King site, south of the Heights Theater—has an “interested developer,” Clark said. That site had been the subject of potential purchase talks last year between the city and Frattalone Hardware; after the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement, however, Frattalone relocated from its 37th Avenue site to the mall at 44th and Central [near Rainbow Foods].
At the south end of town, developer Chris Little bought three city-owned parcels for a shopping strip mall he plans for the northwest corner of 37th and Central, across the street from Jeff’s Bobby and Steve’s AutoWorld. “We had three small parcels [including a building that formerly housed Don Murnane Wigs]; the council approved an agreement with him six months ago. He’s looking at a 10,000 square foot shopping center.”
Clark and other staff plan to go to the city’s Economic Development Authority on Jan. 27 to request downsizing a proposed retail/parking ramp project at 47th and Central avenues. The former Kmart site plan originally called for 52,000 square feet of retail space that would include an ALDI grocery store and second floor office space. “We want to eliminate the office space and reduce the project to 35,000 square feet. Also, the parking ramp would be smaller.” ALDI is still “the mainstay” of the project, he added.
Clark said a $2.5 million residential renovation project at Sullivan Shores, which replaced rotted wood, siding, windows and the roof, is now completed. On that project, the city—after being approached by many of the town home owners for help with financing—loaned the homeowners’ association money for the work.
Owners had the option, according to Columbia Heights Assistant Finance Director Joseph Kloiber, of paying their $42,100 share up front or taking long-term financing in the form of an 15-year assessment.
Clark said it was a good example of a public entity working with a private development. “If the work hadn’t been done, those townhouses would have continued to go down,” he added.
Safety center, gyms
City Manager Walter Fehst said the $11 million, 44,000 square-foot safety center building, which in its first phase will house the police and fire departments, is on time and coming in, so far, under budget, with completion anticipated for November. (A second phase might include the library.)
Joe Primus, director of finance and operations for Columbia Heights public schools, said the two-gym construction project is about 75 percent finished.
“The pool upgrade and locker room and restroom upgrades have been finished. The two gyms [one owned by the city, one owned by the school district] are going up simultaneously.” The project’s total cost, he added, is $8 million, $3.5 million of which the city will pay.
The plan includes two fitness rooms. The school’s will be larger, and is being partially furnished with equipment donated by LifeTime Fitness athletic club. “We wrote a proposal to them and they gave us $40,000 worth of equipment,” Primus said. Some of the older equipment might be moved from the fitness room in the school’s lower level to the new fitness room, he added, and some might go to Central Middle School.
City residents will have access (fees are being decided) to the city-owned gym and fitness room, but would have to request use of the school’s new gym and fitness room. Access will be granted if the areas are available, Primus said. The pool is solely owned by the school district, he added. Residents can sign up for community education swimming and water exercise classes.
Workers are installing windows, bleachers and equipment such as basketball hoops. The cement work is done, Primus said, but the boiler—which also heats the pool—and the gym wood floors have yet to be installed.
“We believe substantial completion should be March 31,” he said, with landscaping to follow in April and May.
Clark said that Columbia Heights will apply to Anoka County for money (available through the federal government’s Home Economic Recovery Act, or HERA) to demolish, rehab or resell some of the city’s distressed houses. Staff estimate the number of single family home and duplex foreclosures in 2007 and 2008 at 459, which is about 7.3 percent of the city’s total 6,000 housing units.
The city recently bought six properties that it has demolished or intends to demolish. The fire department burned down (on purpose, as a practice burn) 4647 Polk Street NE. Three other houses, 4631 Pierce St. NE, 961 Gould Ave. NE, and 4011 5th St. NE, have been razed. “We paid HUD one dollar plus closing costs for the Fifth Street property,” Cartney said. “HUD offered a program in which a [HUD-owned] house on the market more than 90 days could be sold to a government entity.” Two houses in the Sheffield area, 4636 Polk St. NE and 4618 Polk St. NE, will also be razed, she added.
Fehst said that the downturn in the economy has hit the city hard. “We anticipate losing $700,000 in local government aid [state money] this year. That’s on top of the $380,000 that the governor declined to release in December; it’s money we were promised, and that we had already spent. We can’t make that money up. We are not hiring people for jobs we put in our  budget, and will likely be making reductions in several departments. We will also have layoffs.” The positions budgeted for but on hold include a full time police officer and a crime prevention specialist, he added.
Maureen Michalski, of Shafer Richardson and the Huset Park Development Corporation (Shafer Richardson originally owned the land now being developed by Ryland Homes for its Park View town home project), said the National Handicapped Housing Institute, Inc.’s grant application for federal money was turned down in 2008, but company officials intend to reapply in 2009. The institute, a private non-profit that provides housing for disabled adults, had hoped to build senior housing on Jefferson Street, at the east end of the Huset Park project near the traffic roundabout.
What’s the status of the proposed commercial development near 37th and University avenues? That is Phase 3 of the project, she added, and the first two phases—town home construction— aren’t done yet. Because of the depressed housing market, “that project is not happening as quickly as first expected,” she said.