City officials stress implementation, and associated costs, are still uncertain
A year and a half ago, Forest Lake’s city council formed a downtown committee to figure out what can be done to resurrect the struggling historic downtown corridor of the city. On Monday, July 25, the final iteration of the city’s downtown plan will likely be approved by the Forest Lake City Council. It’s the completion of the long-term vision-casting journey by the city that began in January of 2021, and aims to make Forest Lake a destination city by capitalizing on the lake and the trail throughout the year to attract new businesses.
That plan, say city officials, will be key in the years to come as they work to develop public land, like Lakeside Memorial Park and Hardwood Creek Trail, and look to private developers to bring back life into the historic core of the city. But they stress that right now, that’s all it is: a plan. The real work, they say, begins now.
In January 2019, Mayor Mara Bain transitioned from a council seat into the mayor’s desk, and focused on updating old plans for the downtown area that never got off the ground.
She said in an interview to The Times earlier this year, “It’s been a project that’s been talked about for years in Forest Lake, even if you go back as far as the redesign of Lakeside Memorial Park and building projects even 20 years ago. It’s been a longtime discussion.”
Assistant City Administrator Dan Undem, who has been at the city for eight years, said a vision and action plan for the downtown was sorely needed. He said due to a lack of a plan, city staff are more “reactionary” to projects that come across their desk instead of being more “planful.”
Bain said, “One of the reasons we’ve focused on this work on having a downtown plan, is as those projects come forward, we have community feedback, and we’ve done our own planning work, and we can gauge those projects based on what is Forest Lake’s plan for downtown.”
The downtown committee was formed in January 2021 as a part of the Economic Development Authority, and included members of council, the EDA, and other interested community members. In June 2021, the committee hired planning firm HKGi and worked with Bruce Chamberlain to develop a plan for downtown.
HKGi worked during the next 12 months to engage various entities, such as the city staff, the council, the downtown committee, other stakeholders, and the public. HKGi held several listening sessions and public open forums so community members could offer feedback about what they liked, what they disliked, and what they wanted for downtown.
The comments varied, but there seemed to be a general consensus about frustrations around both a lack of parking and a concern over safety for pedestrians in the downtown area, as well as a desire to reduce sightlines and noise from nearby Highway 61. That combination makes implementation difficult to get just right.
“That is exactly the needle we’re trying to thread in this, is having sufficient parking – and having sufficient adjacent parking – that isn’t too far away. We need close proximity of parking that doesn’t interfere with activities like enjoying the lake and safe traffic patterns,” Bain said. Some of the plan proposals include adding landscaping to help reduce noise and create a more natural surrounding to the park, while encouraging drivers on Highway 61 to slow down to help with pedestrian traffic.
“Recreation and transportation clash together in the same space, so we can try to provide design features to solve for that,” Bain said.
Other comments included a desire to connect pedestrians on Hardwood Creek Trail to the downtown corridor on Highway 61, and a desire to add more boat docks so boaters can park and enjoy downtown.
That helped inform HKGi’s final proposal, which looks to mitigate some of those concerns and offers new updates to help promote pedestrian access to downtown, and increase parking nearby, which would help bring retail and dining to the area.
The first plan was shown by HKGi last month, after which feedback was accepted by various groups, including city commissions and committees, other area “stakeholders” such as Washington County Transportation. A final public engagement session was held both online and in-person in June.
After the final public engagement session, some of the feedback changed various projects within the plan. The first proposal showed the elimination of the public boat ramp at Lakeside Memorial Park and extending that as green space (with a potential new bandshell), and then relocating the ramp. Concerns by members of the city staff, the downtown committee, as well as the Parks, Trials and Lakes Commission included the feasibility and price tag of such an endeavor. The relocation of the ramp itself would require the acquisition of property elsewhere on the lake. In addition, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources helped fund the current ramp during the redesign of Lakeside Memorial Park, and it was noted the DNR might not fund the relocation of the ramp. Another alternative is to keep the ramp in place, but move the boat and trailer parking elsewhere.
Relocating the boat ramp wasn’t removed from the final plan, and Bain has said that one of the next action steps is to research that option further going into 2023.
“[That is] heavily dependent upon an agreeable alternative being found. … That is the big question to be answered: Is this even feasible, and where there is consensus, is that consensus that we continue to have a boat launch close to downtown? We recognize the downtown plan kind of contemplates there are some benefits to alternatives of that existing space,” she said, but, “We wouldn’t move it unless there is a viable alternative,” Bain said.
The Parks, Trails and Lakes Commission also came up with concerns over many of the changes HKGi proposed to Lakeside Memorial Park, itself. That included concerns over the feasibility and cost of a new bandshell, which was seen by the council early on as a cherry-on-the-top kind of project. The relocation of the newly built playground by the beach and the removal or relocation of the beach house were also concerns. The new plan shows the playground staying where it is, and the beach house will stay until the “end of its useful life” according to the document, at which point a new location would be considered.
The PTL commission also showed support for the plan’s increase in boat slips, and a non-motorized boat launch, and the updates to Hardwood Creek Trail, which would eventually create a loop from the trail to the park.
The project’s estimated total, given by HKGi, stood at $35 million when it was proposed to the public in May. That price tag was a significant concern for many online respondents during the June feedback session, and members of city staff and the council acknowledge that it isn’t a small amount, especially as the council currently works towards figuring out funding sources for other infrastructure improvements, such as needed road repairs or reconstruction.
Both Undem and Bain reiterated that no city dollars have yet to be assigned to any project in particular, nor is the $35 million price tag a guarantee that is how much the entire plan would be in actual dollars spent. Instead, it helps inform city staff and the council on how to budget for those projects.
“For a city this size, you need to have a plan for what you want to have your downtown be,” Undem said, adding that one of the reasons the downtown committee chose to work with HKGi is that the planning firm gave the city high-level cost estimates. He said just as the city aims to get plan for its current expenses, the city will now have a plan for downtown, and that helps the city better execute the strategy.
“If you didn’t have the plan, we wouldn’t be able to do anything,” he said.
Some projects may be eligible for grant dollars, and other projects could be funded via state or federal funds. In addition, various projects are tied to the execution of others, so that could impact the final number, as well.
“It’s going to depend on how everything sequences out,” Undem said.
With the planning stage all but complete, that begs the question, what comes next?
A lot, according to Undem, assuming the council approves the updated final plan by HKGi at its council meeting. The plan is meant to be a guidepost for downtown development over the next 15 to 20 years, and there are a lot of considerations and projects to be done.
“Now that the plan is approved, we’re going into the bulk of the work,” Undem said.
Some of what’s in the plan is going to be dependent on private developers, such as Gaughn’s interest in redeveloping the stretch of land from Lone Oak Grill (formerly Vannelli’s on the Lake) to the old bank, east of Highway 61. Some of the proposals in the plan also would require private land owners to work with the city, either by selling land or providing easements, as would be required to complete a loop from Hardwood Creek Trail to Lakeside Memorial Park.
Regardless of whether or not certain projects will be mostly spurred by private development, the city still has projects completely under its purview, and it also needs to be prepared to partner with those private land owners and developers.
So on the city’s side, that will mean figuring out a structure of responsibility to make sure the plan doesn’t sit on a shelf, Undem said.
Undem said he doesn’t know yet if there will be a separate committee that is formed to help execute the plan, but points to the EDA as a likely point-man scenario. From there, various parts of the plan will likely be delegated to various city entities, like the PTL Commission, for instance.
The next phase, he said, is to “really dive in and work through what are the options to fund this, [and] to make sure we’re just not doing projects to get them done, but do them thoughtfully.”
A look to the future
While some may focus on the plan’s cost and its specific projects, the downtown plan is, at its core, a vision for the future of Forest Lake’s downtown area for the next 20 years. Many changes can happen in 20 years, and so the plan is meant as a general framework meant to be adaptable, Undem said.
“It does have baked-in flexibility as a result of that,” Undem said.
That means as projects come to the table, the city will evaluate how well certain projects fit in to the current time, or how well applications for various projects fit in to the plan.
In addition, just because the planning stage is over doesn’t mean there won’t be more opportunity for public input.
Undem added that so far the city’s expectations for public engagement on the planning process “were blown out of the water,” and said he’s looking for ways to keep the public involved in the execution of the plan.
Bain encouraged residents to remain involved in the process for either private developments or public projects by the city.
“The public does have feedback on [projects],” she said, adding that both public dollars for public projects, as well as private developments, are a big part of that. She also added that private developments go through a public engagement process once developers submit an application, which goes to the planning commission for review and approval. She added that the council has discretion in the matter, too.
She said that the council also looks to see if a particular development is “within our requirements, [and] what are those design elements. Do they allow for enough parking space, what are the height requirements, and meet our design elements? Within our laws, that’s where the judgment comes in.”