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Approvals and votes start falling into place for soccer stadium

Posted on 05 September 2016 by Calvin

By JANE MCCLURE
Approvals are falling into place for a Major League Soccer stadium near Snelling and University avenues and redevelopment of Midway Center, with an eye toward stadium completion and soccer games here in mid-2018.

Soccer fans cheered the Aug. 19 announcement that Minnesota United FC will start play in the league in March 2017. The team will play at the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium until the St. Paul facility is complete.

St. Paul City Council approvals Aug. 17 of several measures helped the stadium project along and also set the stage for longer-term Midway Center redevelopment. The stadium site plan, Midway Center master plan, a technical zoning amendment and property plan changes all passed 5-1. The council unanimously approved a community benefits agreement tied to redevelopment.

But Gov. Mark Dayton’s Aug. 18 announcement that there won’t be a 2016 legislative special session does hold up the stadium’s sought-after tax exemptions. Minnesota United sought a property tax exemption for the site and a sales tax exemption on construction materials for the $150 million facility. Dayton and legislative leaders were unable to agree on details of a special session, including funding for Southwest light rail.

At the Aug. 19 announcement of the start of MLS play, Dayton said he’d do everything he can to get the exemption passed during the 2017 legislative session. Bill McGuire, a primary owner of the soccer team, has repeatedly said that the team is confident that the exemptions will be approved. The property tax exemption was in the tax bill passed by the House and Senate, but Dayton wouldn’t sign it because of a technical error related to another part of the legislation.

The City Council’s actions cap a planning process that began late last year. The stadium and Midway Center plans went through review by a community task force and were recommended for approval by the St. Paul Planning Commission. Work will continue with further studies on transportation, traffic and transit use, issues which emerged as red flags during studies of the project’s transportation impacts.

Ward Seven Council Member Jane Prince cast the lone votes against the project pieces; her main objection is that the actions “are both rushed and premature.” She cited similar concerns raised by members of the Snelling Midway Community Advisory Committee, who had to make recommendations before environmental impact studies were even completed.

Prince also quoted a project staff report on the Midway Center site plan which cited a “critical lack of detail” on the project. “Uncertainty abounds,” said Prince. She raised questions about potential developer and business interest in a redeveloped Midway Center, as well as the uncertainty about the requested tax exemptions, as other reasons to not support the actions.

Other council members said that while they may also have questions, they are confident that the stadium and shopping center redevelopment will be a success. Council President Russ Stark described the community review process as “extensive.”

Stark said that while some issues are unresolved, he is excited about the master plan for the redevelopment of the 34.4-acre Midway Center site and the soccer stadium site plan. He lives just two blocks from the shopping center and the superblock bounded by Pascal St. and St. Anthony, Snelling and University avenues. “It’s exciting to see the opportunity to redevelop this site and to see investment.”

Midway Center owner Rick Birdoff has said that the stadium project is the catalyst for shopping center redevelopment.

“This is really a game change for that neighborhood and the whole city,” said Ward Three Council Member Chris Tolbert.

Other council members said they are torn by the uncertainties about the projects, but voted for it despite that. Ward One Council Member Dai Thao said the benefits outweigh the uncertainties, adding that visitors to the city will no longer drive up Snelling Ave. past a “graveyard for buses.”

Thao got unanimous support for a community benefits agreement tied to the projects, drawing on input from the community advisory committee and other public meetings. The resolution spells out some community benefits any developers must commit to. One idea Thao included is that the developers have a community liaison to work with neighbors during and after development. One oft-heard complaint during the community advisory committee process was Midway Center management’s lack of attention to issues ranging from trash to shopping carts abandoned throughout the community.

The resolution suggests, but doesn’t require, that a fund be created to pay for neighborhood issues related to redevelopment. It also urges that developers avoid displacing businesses, provide affordable housing at the site and bring in a diverse workforce. Thao said his intent is to bring forward something that works for everybody. He also has an eye toward tying some community benefits to tax increment financing, if that is used in the future to redevelop the shopping center.

Ward Six Council Member Dan Bostrom was absent for the votes.

After the council votes, Mayor Chris Coleman issued a statement saying that the day had marked “a huge milestone for St. Paul and the entire region.” The mayor also said the votes bring St. Paul “one step closer to seeing incredible redevelopment in the heart of the Twin Cities—made possible by the catalyst of this proposed stadium—and one step closer to bringing Major League Soccer to Minnesota.”

The stadium site plan covers the 16-acre stadium site, indicating where streets, parking, rain garden, sidewalks, bicycle accommodations, a transit drop-off plaza and green space will be. It also lays out some details on the development of the 20,000-seat stadium. The Midway Center master plan is more visionary, with an ambitious scenario of mixed-use redevelopment.

The council approvals also set plat boundary lines and made a technical zoning change to allow a stadium in a traditional neighborhood-zoned property. Those and recent Planning Commission approval of two technical amendments to the stadium site plan complete city approvals, for now.

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