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Gold Line revision offers development potential

A revised route for the Gold Line bus rapid transit line would trade long-term development opportunities in Woodbury for a short-term ridership boost and investment possibilities.

A Gateway Corridor Commission panel this month recommended a new route that would move the line away from a set of empty lots and open fields slated for long-term development to one of the city’s more popular retail and jobs corridors along Bielenberg Drive.

But there are still good transit-oriented development opportunities, said Janelle Schmitz, assistant community development director at the city of Woodbury.

“It’s not a green field, but there’s also density there to build upon versus building from scratch,” she said. “That energy and momentum is kind of already there and started.”

The new 9-mile Gold Line route would travel along the Interstate 94 corridor from the Union Depot in downtown St. Paul to Woodbury, stopping in Maplewood at the 3M Co. headquarters and at park-and-rides in Landfall and Oakdale along the way.

After stopping at Helmo Avenue in Oakdale, the line would turn south and cross over I-94 on a new bridge to Bielenberg Drive and continue to the park-and-ride lot next to the Woodbury Theatre at 1470 Queens Drive. The lot is adjacent to the Woodbury Village shopping center.

The original route would have stayed close to I-94, stopping near undeveloped land at Settlers Ridge Parkway and Hudson Road, before continuing on to Lake Elmo. That plan changed in January, when Lake Elmo City Council members voted to leave the project, sending Gold Line planners back to the drawing board.

The corridor along Bielenberg Drive is now home to nearly 800,000 square feet of retail and more than 1.1 million square feet of office space, including a Medtronic data center, according to city data.

Those existing retail establishments, which include hotels, restaurants and a theater, could be a faster bet for bringing in riders and sparking new development along the route, Schmitz said. It also has potential for redevelopment or investment in some aging properties in the Woodbury Village area, she added.

The corridor also has open swaths of mostly privately owned land including a couple of parcels just north of Tamarack Road on either side of Bielenberg Drive, Schmitz said.

The Metropolitan Council owns the 10-acre property that currently offers a Metro Transit park-and-ride with 515 spaces and the Woodbury Theatre.

In the past, regional and city planners have considered that site for a parking ramp or a joint development opportunity, said Lyssa Leitner, the Gold Line project manager for Washington County. Now, as cities and the county mull the latest recommended Gold Line route, those conversations are buzzing again, she said.

“Ten acres is a huge site,” she said. “Metro Transit, in the last 10 years, has gotten a lot more savvy at that particular kind of development. So it seems like it’s something that might be a really great opportunity.”

Metro Transit hasn’t said what its plans are for the site, or whether they’d reopen discussions about redevelopment.

“The [transit-oriented development] plan will include public engagement plans; an analysis of housing and employment in the corridor; and plans for infrastructure, circulation and land use,” Lucy Galbraith, Metro Transit’s director of transit-oriented development, said in a statement.

If adopted, the new route is expected to draw about 400 more rides a day in the near term, up from about 5,000 daily rides with the Lake Elmo route.

But long-term estimated ridership isn’t as high as it was when the route traveled along I-94 to Lake Elmo. By 2040, the new alignment is expected to see about 8,000 rides daily, 600 fewer than the original proposal.

The project is still a good deal, Leitner said, because the cost of the new route would drop by about $25 million, even with the new bridge over I-94. The project’s price tag was initially $485 million.

Both Woodbury and Oakdale will vote on the new alignment next month. The other cities along the route won’t need to vote on the route again because the alignment has only changed on the eastern end. Washington County is expected to vote on the change by the end of the year.

“I think it’s that balance of what are you going to have on opening day for ridership and what are the opportunities to increase development and economic development over time,” Schmitz said.

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