Pieces of a big South Robert Street redevelopment puzzle are fitting into place.
The West St. Paul City Council this week approved two development agreements — one with Hy-Vee for a grocery store on the YMCA property, the other with Dakota County for the River to River Greenway trail and a pedestrian tunnel underneath the retail-heavy street.
Meanwhile, the city’s economic development authority on Oct. 22 will review a housing plan — and possibly two others — for the city’s now-shuttered Thompson Oaks Golf Course, said Jim Hartshorn, the city’s community development director.
“There are still a lot of moving parts — it’s not entirely a done deal — but we’re as close as we’ve ever been to getting this (area) squared away,” he said.
The projects, pegged for contiguous land on the east side of Robert between Thompson and Wentworth avenues, have been several years in the making. However, deadlines have created a sense of urgency.
If the city fails to finalize a joint-powers agreement with the county by the end of the year, $2.2 million in state bonding money for the tunnel could go away, city manager Ryan Schroeder said.
“The concern at this point is that we’re running out of calendar,” he said.
The county board approved the agreement last month. But because council members requested changes to the agreement, the county must review it again before the agreement goes to the Metropolitan Council, which administers the funds.
Meanwhile, a purchase agreement the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities and Iowa-based Hy-Vee signed in December for the Y’s 10-acre site also expires at the end of the year, Hartshorn said.
Finally, deadlines are approaching for grants a developer could request for affordable housing on the former golf course site.
“If they can do 20 percent affordable housing, there’s a good chance they’d qualify for Met Council funding, and those grants are due at the end of November,” Hartshorn said. “So that’s another push. Everything is due by the end of the year.”
BIKING, WALKING UNDER ROBERT
City officials have been throwing around the idea of a pedestrian bridge or tunnel on Robert Street since at least 2011, when the now-complete reconstruction of the road was being planned and the River to River Greenway went under a different name — the North Urban Regional Trail.
The greenway now runs nearly 8 miles from the Big Rivers Regional Trail in Lilydale through parks and residential and commercial areas in Mendota Heights, West St. Paul and South St. Paul, to the Mississippi River Regional Trail. The trail is in place, but no signs are up yet.
In recent years, a tunnel has been a hot topic with city councils, residents and county officials.
Current and former council members have questioned whether it is needed, contending that the street-level crossing at Wentworth Avenue is safe. Most have agreed that the city should wait to see how development along Robert Street shakes out.
That time appears to be now.
Development of Thompson Oaks is the big one, since the county’s preferred trail alignment is through the golf course property up to Thompson and Oakdale avenues.
Interested developers see the trail as a positive feature, even though it trims the amount of land that can be built out, Hartshorn said.
“Every developer that I talk to says the trail is a great amenity,” he said. “They’re happy that we’re doing this.”
The tunnel, pegged at costing $2.3 million, would be built almost smack dab between Wentworth and Thompson avenues. The western side would include part of the former Blockbuster site, which the city owns.
The eastern end would be what is now Crawford Drive, which would be realigned after an Auto Zone store is either purchased through ongoing negotiations or taken through eminent domain. The city has suggested several sites in the city where Auto Zone could relocate.
Dakota County would be responsible for all construction costs of the tunnel and trails leading to it.
Besides using the city’s $2.2 million in state bonding funds, the county plans to use a $650,000 federal transportation grant for trails to it and also chip in an additional $200,000. It would pay up to 75 percent of the cost to acquire the Auto Zone property, which in April was appraised at $1.55 million.
HIGH ON HY-VEE
Four years ago, Hy-Vee scouted the former Kmart site at Signal Hills Shopping Center, then backed off that plan in favor of pursuing the 10-acre YMCA site.
“They looked at the Y three years ago,” Hartshorn said.
The project was delayed partly because of the YMCA’s uncertainty about building a larger branch in the same spot or somewhere else, he said.
“They knew they wanted to do something, but nobody knew what that something was going to be,” he said. “So all we could do was sit and wait.”
Meanwhile, Hy-Vee reps initially told city officials that they had a shortfall of about $2.5 million for a proposed 100,000-square-foot store and were asking for a subsidy from the city to close the gap.
But in recent months, Hy-Vee submitted plans for a 68,400-square-foot store, which reduces their requested subsidy to $1.58 million.
The city intends to pay for about half of it by selling part of the Blockbuster site. The balance would be paid back over 20 years by Hy-Vee’s property taxes.
The store won’t work without the subsidy, said city manager Schroeder.
“If this was a greenfield site, just bare land of some sort, there wouldn’t be a need for any subsidy,” he said. “But it costs money to redevelop property.”
Hartshorn noted how 23 percent of the properties in West St. Paul are nontaxable, such as churches, parks and schools. That’s why it is important to get the city’s former golf course and the YMCA property on the tax rolls, he said.
Schroeder said he anticipates the planning commission will review a site plan for a Hy-Vee store in the next couple of months and that the earliest construction could start would be next fall.