St. Louis Park City Council members gave the nonprofit developer PLACE until the end of the year to obtain financing for the first phase of a development that is well overdue.
City staff and some council members indicated a reluctance to wait much longer for the organization to begin work on the major housing and commercial project, which the council approved in this spring.
City staff members had recommended a deadline of Dec. 18 for PLACE to buy land near Highway 7 and Wooddale Avenue owned by the St. Louis Park Economic Development Authority for the first phase of the project.
“In the absence of extraordinary circumstances, staff would not recommend extending on the north parcels beyond that date,” Economic Development Coordinator Greg Hunt said at a Nov. 5 council meeting.
However, Councilmember Anne Mavity, who strongly supported the project, called the proposed date “a little paternalistic” and successfully moved to change the date to Dec. 31. The council extended the deadline for PLACE to buy city-owned parcels near West 36th Street and Wooddale Avenue for a second phase until June 30, 2019.
Council members voted unanimously to authorize up to $50 million in bonds that PLACE will seek to sell to investors and, as the EDA, voted to extend the deadlines. However, Councilmember Steve Hallfin said the city is ignoring the definition of the word “deadline.”
“If we keep moving the line, it’s really not a deadline; it’s a movable line,” Hallfin said. “At what point do we here as a council say it’s really a deadline? How many extensions do you get?”
He said he is rooting for the project.
“I want this to happen, but I’m kind of to the end,” he said.
Mayor Jake Spano said of the project, “It has certainly gotten our patience. I also think it is fair for us to say it’s time. We need to get moving forward.”
Nevertheless, Spano noted that other projects, like Excelsior and Grand, The West End and the Bridgewater Bank project, took years to emerge.
“We certainly understand the rhythms of this project,” Spano said. “I think this project in particular has been has had more rhythms and changes than just about any other one.”
Councilmember Thom Miller said, “This is truly an extraordinary project, and, as it turns out, it’s taken an extraordinary amount of time to get it going, and it’s taken an extraordinary amount of financing to make it work.”
He spoke in support of the level of affordable housing the project would provide, though, and praised its environmentally friendly nature.
“I see no reason why waiting another four, five, six weeks should hamper us on moving this project moving forward and give it one last try,” Miller said.
Such delays and contract amendments require a significant amount of staff time, Councilmember Rachel Harris said.
“Something that has been weighing on my mind is the number of amendments the project has requested,” she said.
In the future, Harris said the council should consider charging developers for the cost of city staff work relating to such delays, she suggested.
However, she called the PLACE plan overall “definitely inspirational.”
According to PLACE, more than $11 million has been invested in the project itself, with more than $1 million by the developer along with significant sums by a variety of companies.
Councilmember Anne Mavity, who is the executive director of the Minnesota Housing Partnership, said affordable housing projects often require numerous sources of financing.
“I understand that we’ve had delays along the way, but that happens,” Mavity said. “I think very strongly that it would not be responsible for us right now as a city to preemptively get in front of this and say we’re done with this. I think that we need to hold the course right now.”
Speakers at a public hearing provided mixed views about the project.
Retired banker Patrick Wells, of St. Louis Park, said council members should ask themselves what could go wrong.
“The banking side of me says that if something doesn’t pass muster the first couple of times, you’re going to get in trouble,” Wells said. “The continuation of the ugly head of failure is somewhat coming up on this thing.”
According to city staff members and Julie Eddington, an attorney with Kennedy & Graven who is working for the city, taxes will not be at risk with the bond sale.
St. Louis Park resident Meghan Phimister warned that PLACE could develop only the first phase of the project and advised waiting for light rail to develop.
“A lot of stuff goes on at this intersection already, and to have development already in place before light rail is there could add a little insult to injury,” she said.
St. Louis Park resident Kim Anderson said, “It’s great that PLACE is visionary and dreaming. The council cannot continue to just dream about this. We have people in our community who don’t have houses right now. Winter is coming.”
She added, “I encourage you to continue to look at this with a lot of scrutiny and also optimism, but it’s time to get off the pot.”
Representatives of the project sought continued patience.
Stahl Construction President Jessie Houlihan Bingen said she understood that the delays can be frustrating.
“I’ve had crews ready to get started for quite awhile,” she said.
Other companies working on affordable housing have been affected by financing changes, she said.
“We’re one of the few still standing to date,” she said.
PLACE treasurer Brent Webb said that the project represented “an army of Minnesota’s best companies with an enormous investment at stake.”
He added, “We need from you enough time to make this a success.”
St. Louis Park resident Todd Bagby, who volunteers with PLACE, said, “In all candor, the matter before us tonight doesn’t seem like a close call to me.... Flushing over $11 million of private investment and nearly $5 million in grant funds would be downright foolish and irresponsible.”
Supporter Jim McDonough, of St. Louis Park, referenced a President John F. Kennedy speech in which he said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Spano said he loved the comparison but he emphasized that part of the quote says, “In this decade.”
He remarked, “It raises my point about time lines.”