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Developer talks height, density at TCAAP

An early look at master developer Alatus’ draft plan for the state’s largest superfund site left some Arden Hills officials shifting in their seats Monday over the increased density and taller buildings than planners had envisioned.

“I feel like you’re trying to build a mini-Minneapolis here in my suburb,” Arden Hills City Council Member Brenda Holden said at a meeting. “I worry about this for a suburb.”

The former Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant site has a master plan, created by a Joint Development Authority between the city and Ramsey County, which calls for buildings reaching up to 65 feet, or about six stories, and a maximum of 1,431 units throughout the 427-acre site.

But if Minneapolis-based Alatus has its way, the site’s early phases would include a town center anchored by a grocery store eventually surrounded by up to 1,500 high-end residential units, a hotel, theater and 16,000-square-feet of restaurant space in mixed-use buildings. Later phases would add up to 466 single-family homes and townhouses.

Condominium buildings reaching as high as 12 stories would be built near the entertainment and retail, helping to create an active town center to draw homeowners in the later stages, Alatus Principal Bob Lux said at the meeting.

Lux noted he wants to build condos at the site despite state laws that have made many developers shy away from them in recent years. Existing statutes allow condo owners to sue developers and others involved in the projects for defects up to a decade after the units are built.

“If you had asked me two years ago if I’d ever stand in front of a body in Arden Hills and say that we would consider doing condominiums there, I would have said absolutely not,” Lux said. “I am convinced, from the research that we are doing, that there is a need for condominiums.”

But in order to limit liability to the developer and its team of more than 30 planners on the project, Lux said the condominiums need to be built with concrete, which is more expensive than other building materials and not as cost-effective in shorter buildings.

“You eliminate 90 percent of those [liability] problems if you start with concrete,” Lux said.

If city and Ramsey County planners can’t envision at least 10-story condominium buildings at the site, condos won’t likely make it into the final draft of Alatus’ plan, Lux added.

One of the primary goals of the redevelopment, planners and the developer agree, is to increase the tax value of the site, also known as Rice Creek Commons. The land has been vacant and undergoing a $22.5 million soil cleanup and remediation for the past three years.

Alatus’ plan would increase the tax value “significantly,” Lux said.

“We believe with the development we are proposing that we will increase the value … in the hundreds of millions of dollars, if we can execute on it the way that we’re planning, the way that this team has committed to doing,” he told planners.

The Joint Development Authority, Arden Hills City Council and Alatus will continue to meet through September to iron out the details before a final draft is released. As of Tuesday, the developer was already beginning to refine plans in response to the feedback Alatus received, Lux said in a statement Tuesday.

But not all parts of Alatus’ draft proposal Monday elicited concern from planners. The developer wants to create a walkable environment with an underground parking system throughout the town center and hopes to attract a bus rapid transit line to the site to draw more tenants and visitors.

A pedestrian-friendly bridge would be built over a major road that runs through the development to keep the site feeling like one cohesive development. The stream running though the property would be fashioned similar to the Chain of Lakes in Minneapolis, which includes lakes Harriet and Calhoun, with bike trails that connect to other regional paths.

Lux likened the proposed town center to St. Louis Park’s West End shopping and entertainment center, but noted that the developer was taking lessons from the commercial development to make the Rice Creek Commons even better.

“When you drive by [West End] they’re putting up six-story, after six-story, after six-story development, and that to me is not very exciting,” he said. “It’s not looking at it in a visionary fashion … and none of this plan is designed as just building a building.”

Alatus is working with RSP Architects on the project, which also designed the West End development and is helping to distill those lessons, Lux said.

David Sand, chair of the Joint Development Authority, said Monday he was on board with the principles Alatus is using for the first phase of development.

“That is a good mix of development that will attract people that live there in close residential [neighborhoods], plus people … who want to utilize the commercial and recreation area,” he said.

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