Legion Post 435 moratorium sign

American Legion Post 435 pleaded with the city of Richfield not to establish a moratorium on an area that includes property that the veterans group is trying to sell. (Sun Current staff photo by Andrew Wig)

The city of Richfield is exploring the feasibility of building a community center where American Legion Post 435 currently stands, but the veterans organization objects to the way planners are going about their study.

Legion members say that for the post to remain viable, it must sell the property, which abuts Veterans Park near the intersection of East 66th Street and Portland Avenue. That transaction will have to wait, however, after the city put a seven-month moratorium on development neighboring Veterans Park.

In order to conduct a land-use study of the site, the Richfield City Council approved the pause on any development in a unanimous Dec. 8 vote.

The moratorium doesn’t prohibit a sale, but Post Cmdr. Adam Seamans told the City Council it will deter potential buyers, and do so during a “critical point in our post’s history.”

Seamans elaborated, “The action you’re being asked to take tonight may well determine whether Post 435 remains financially viable and a presence in the city for many years to come.”

Without the moratorium, a housing development of more than 350 units could be built on the property currently owned by the Legion, according to City Manager Katie Rodriguez. “That would be a major change to the community in a very important location,” Rodriguez said. The site is guided for high-density housing. City leaders want to analyze how many units would be suitable in a development there, in addition to considerations including aesthetics and how a new development should relate to the park, said Melissa Poehlman, the city’s planning and development manager.

“Those are really critical things that we want to look at here, and that’s the purpose of this moratorium in this area,” Poehlman said.

“Veterans Park would definitely be one of our more sensitive parks,” Recreation Services Director Amy Markle said. “In a sense, it’s a huge wetland”

Known as the heart of Richfield’s park system, the 108-acre park includes wetlands, walking paths, a community pool, a mini golf course, an ice arena and a new bandshell.

“It’s home to hundreds of bird species and plants,” Markle said. “It’s a very beloved park by quite a few residents that will definitely fight to protect and preserve what we have there.”

It will become more clear at the City Council’s first meeting in January whether the park could be home to a community center. That’s when city staff members plan to present their analysis of such a project’s financial feasibility.

Those findings will mark the first of several steps that should bring increased clarity regarding site planning on the Legion’s property, according to John Stark, the city’s community development director. Because the level of uncertainty regarding the land will be reduced over the life of the moratorium, the Legion and developers can still work together as the city studies how a future development can best complement the park, Stark explained.

“We don’t think the moratorium needs to stop the development process,” he said. “It certainly puts a pause on certain aspects of it.”

There could be as many as five developers interested in the property, according to Stark. “In the conversations I’ve had with them, I don’t believe a moratorium would halt their interest,” he said.

Stark acknowledged that developers likely prefer to avoid a moratorium, “but it was not any kind of killer to their proposal,” he said of those conversations.

Seamans is skeptical that progress can be made during the moratorium. “No buyer’s going to consider our property for redevelopment with that kind of cloud hanging over it,” he said.

“The post needs this sale now, not in six to nine months,” added Peter Coyle, the land-use attorney representing Post 435.

Coyle also questioned the need for the land-use study. With the city’s Comprehensive Plan already providing guidance for the area, it’s “unclear to us what additional policy review would be needed that a moratorium would accomplish,” Coyle said.

The study could refine the guidance by informing the creation of an overlay district, Stark responded. Such a measure, he said, is not unusual.

A trust gap

The potential building of a community center has long been a topic of discussion, as the current Richfield Community Center is known more as a senior center.

The Legion, meanwhile, would like any redevelopment of its property to contain housing for veterans and space for its activities. Chartered in 1927, Post 435 has more than 1,000 members. The post has been at the location since 1957.

“This moratorium reflects a lack of respect and trust on the city’s part and will make future cooperation more difficult to achieve,” Seamans warned.

City leaders quickly moved to assure the Legion that they appreciate the presence of the organization. “I just want to reiterate that this is absolutely not something about lack of respect and trust between the city and the Legion,” Mayor Maria Regan Gonzalez said. “We highly value the role that the Legion has played in our city.”

To Councilmember Simon Trautmann, Seamans’ comments showed there is work to be done to repair the relationship between the city and the Legion. “I regret that there’s now a gap in trust that we need to continue to work to close,” Trautmann said.

There doesn’t necessarily have to be a land-use conflict, Regan Gonzalez observed. “In this situation I actually don’t even know that there are competing priorities, outside of a mismatch that’s not that big in terms of a gap in time,” she said.

“I’m very confident that we can move forward together and meet the needs and interests of the Legion and come out with a much stronger project when we’re working on this together. I truly believe this is the path forward to make it happen.”

Councilmember Edwina Garcia also noted the city’s appreciation for the Legion, but called the chance to redevelop Post 435’s property “an opportunity you can’t pass up.”

The moratorium that will allow that opportunity to be explored was initially envisioned as a nine-month pause. “We reviewed our schedule and we’ve done everything we can to speed it up,” Rodriguez said.

Planners are eager to see the study's results.

“I’m really excited about this project,” Stark said. “And I’m really excited about what it can mean.”

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