Like the light rail line the PLACE development project would straddle, planning has taken years and its outlook appeared bleak at times. However, construction work has commenced.
PLACE, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit developer with a name that stands for Projects Linking Art, Community and Environment, has long worked on plans for its Via project near Wooddale Avenue and Highway 7 in St. Louis Park. After receiving city approvals for the plans and even demolishing the McGarvey Coffee factory on the site in 2017, the project stalled amid financial woes.
However, the nonprofit succeeded in selling bonds and closed on a deal Dec. 28 to buy city-owned land for the first phase north of existing freight railroad tracks. Work to remove contaminated soil on the site of the former factory began the second week of January.
“As soon as the remediation work is done here, they’ll start on their building footings,” Greg Hunt, the city’s economic development coordinator said. “We’re obviously very pleased that the project is able to move forward.”
The work on Via Sol, as the northern portion of the project is known, will continue throughout the winter. A city agreement with PLACE requires the work on the first phase to wrap up by the end of January 2020.
The agreement calls for PLACE to buy city-owned property on the south side of the tracks and begin construction on the second phase by the end of June. Work on the southern part, called Via Luna, would be complete by the end of August 2020.
The initial phase includes a building with 152 apartments along with a bike shop and maker space, said Chris Velasco, executive director of PLACE.
The second phase includes a Fairfield Inn by Marriott, about 30,000-square-feet of commercial space and more apartments, for a total of 299 residential units.
An “e-generation” facility that would include an anaerobic digester that converts organic waste into energy would be on the north part of the project but would be built later than the initial Via Sol apartment building. Solar panels that would contribute to the e-generation facility cannot be mounted until the building they would rest upon is complete, Velasco noted.
“We just really hope to get the project open next year, and that, I think, would be a lot of help to a lot of people,” Velasco said.
While the nonprofit has not closed on the city-owned parcels that are part of the Via Luna section, the executive director said the deal “is pretty much all lined up.” The residential building on the south part of the development area is entirely financed, but he said financing still must be completed for the hotel.
“We expect to be ready and have those under construction by July,” Velasco said.
A federal tax change approved at the end of 2017 impacted the PLACE plans, but Velasco said the nonprofit still plans to use affordable housing tax credits for the project. The hotel would be financed conventionally.
Some “friends of the project” would like to move in already, Velasco said.
“There are 45 people or so on our waiting list, and we haven’t even started the vertical period of the construction yet,” he said.
The Via Luna site includes a Nash-Finch building near West 36th Street and Wooddale Avenue. Unlike the coffee factory, Velasco said PLACE likely will “wait until the very last possible moment before we take it down.”
Tearing down the former coffee factory early did not create much risk, he noted.
“Nobody was going to save that building, and lots of people were getting inside of that building and tearing things out of it,” said Velasco.
While he said its demolition was positive, he said of the site, “We certainly didn’t want to sit on it this long. That wasn’t our attempt.”
Velasco acknowledged that some people doubted work on the project would ever begin.
“I just think that exceptional projects are always exceptionally difficult,” he said. “They were right to doubt it because when you aim really high and things are going to be really difficult, there’s a lot more potential problems that can go wrong.”
He said PLACE did not create an ambitious plan to make more money but rather to have a better public benefit.
“But it does make it a lot more difficult, so I get it,” Velasco said. “Fortunately, we were able to make it go, and we haven’t so far failed to get a project going. So, this is part of our determination. We are a dogged bunch of people, and we just are not going to give up until we make it go.”
He said city leaders have distinguished themselves by supporting innovative projects.
“I know they were fatigued by the process almost as much as we were, but I think they’re going to be very proud of it because it really continues that trend for St. Louis Park to have really cutting-edge, landmark projects.”
PLACE intends to seek Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design Gold certification for the buildings, including the hotel.
Pointing to the added environmental benefits of light rail, Velasco said he never really doubted the passenger train line would progress.
“I know there were lots of twist and turns that made people worry it wasn’t going to happen, but I just thought there was just too much good work done to let it drop,” he said.
Before the light rail line opens, PLACE plans to provide shuttles to bus lines, shopping areas and Park Nicollet facilities, including Methodist Hospital.
The e-generation facility will also provide environmental benefits. However, the anaerobic digester will be much smaller than originally envisioned after Hennepin County decided to work with another contractor for organic waste. The system will use such waste generated throughout the Via project and from Steel Toe Brewing, but it will only process about 500 tons of food waste per year instead of 30,000 tons of food waste annually, as originally envisioned. It will still serve to demonstrate the concept, though, Velasco said.
Spark-Y, a nonprofit that already provides education to St. Louis Park students relating to urban agriculture, will operate an associated greenhouse system at Via.
“They’ll create educational programs so we can work with the St. Louis Park schools to bring students over and learn more about where their energy comes from, where food comes from, where their waste goes,” Velasco said.
Reflecting on the physical start of construction, he remarked, “I’ve worked so hard with my team to make sure we got here, so I am just thrilled – PLACE is just thrilled to be moving forward with this project that we know the community will really be proud of.”