A year after St. Louis Park imposed a moratorium on the former Sam’s Club site, city leaders are extending the restrictions while they lay out their vision for the land.
The store closed in January 2018 and went up for sale, but the St. Louis Park City Council voted later that year to restrict the use of the property while it studied its future. With the moratorium set to expire Sept. 14, the council approved a final vote Aug. 26 to extend the moratorium by the maximum allowed 120 days.
The city has been diligently studying the site, located at 3745 Louisiana Ave. S., and is moving toward creating new rules for it, according to Planning and Zoning Supervisor Sean Walther. However, he said the council could not enact the new rules until October at the earliest, prompting the need to extend the moratorium.
Even though the city potentially could wrap up the process sooner, city staff members requested the full 120 days to provide a buffer in case any issues arise that need to be addressed, Walther said at an Aug. 19 St. Louis Park City Council meeting. The council could end the moratorium earlier when it approves new zoning rules, he added.
Councilmember Rachel Harris encouraged a swift end to the extended moratorium.
“A few of my considerations for wrapping up the project as quickly as possible are that I understand there are a couple of businesses who are looking to expand in our community and have an eye on this site, and they’re bursting at the seams,” she said. “So the sooner that we can get this site in use again and create some vibrancy in the area, the better for them and also better for us because then we’re able to return it to our tax rolls.”
Councilmember Steve Hallfin clarified that Sam’s Club or a similar use could still open at the site during the moratorium period since the ordinance allows some limited uses of the facility.
“They could do that tomorrow,” he said.
One of the reasons the council set a moratorium is to ensure the property fits with a nearby planned light rail station, Councilmember Anne Mavity said. Semitrailers and warehouses are not conducive to pedestrian-oriented uses, she said.
“Just having this conversation is to ensure that we’re maximizing our leverage of all these other investments with this opportunity, which was not available to us previously,” Mavity said. “I’ll note that we’ve done significant planning for this whole light rail area that anticipates a much more dense, much more intensive use than what is currently on that site.”
She indicated the council should make decisions for the site soon, though.
“I do think that we are under the gun a bit to make some decisions and get some direction on this, and I look forward to doing that,” Mavity said.
Planning Commission recommendations
The St. Louis Park Planning Commission provided some direction when it voted Aug. 21 to recommend changes to the site. Under its recommendations, the comprehensive plan for the 13-acre site would change from commercial to transit-oriented development, “enabling the potential for adding at least 500 housing units and 98 jobs on the site,” according to a city staff report.
The commission also recommended zoning changes that would place part of the site in the city’s business park zone and another part in the city’s high-density multiple family residence zone.
Environmental contamination on the site provides financial and safety challenges to redevelopment, said Laura Chamberlain, a consulting planner with Hoisington Koegler Group Inc.
Her consulting group reviewed employment-focused development, residential-focused development and mixed-use scenarios when studying the site for the city.
“The direction that we got from the city council was that this site provides a prime opportunity for intensification along transit investments, and the city council felt that a mixing of uses with an emphasis on residential would provide the biggest opportunity for intensity,” Chamberlain said.
The council wants to increase affordable housing in particular, she added. Members want to consider reduced parking and other ways to encourage transportation that does not rely on cars.
At an Aug. 8 neighborhood meeting, nearby residents expressed concern about environmental contamination on the site as well as the potential for demolition and construction happening on the site at the same time that work is occurring on the Southwest Light Rail Transit line. Traffic on Louisiana Avenue also arose. Any future development proposals would lead to a traffic study, according to city staff.
The proposed zoning the planning commission recommended would involve the business park use on the northern half of the site and high-density residential use on the south section.
At the commission’s Aug. 21 public hearing, SLP SEEDS founder Julie Rappaport said that portions of the site could sit empty for an extended period due to contamination. She said that plants and mushrooms could be used to help clean up contaminants. Her nonprofit has been in contact with the Metropolitan Council, Three Rivers Park District and the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District about an idea for a youth farm on the site. The current Sam’s Club building could be converted to civic use to provide meals for children as well as job training and other community services, she added.
“There’s a huge gap here,” Rappaport said.
Commissioner Carl Robertson said he loved the idea Rappaport presented but questioned whether it would be the “highest and best use” for the site near a light rail station. Planning for the area near the Southwest Light Rail Transit line has focused on housing and job opportunities.
“Maximizing them on this site is kind of what it’s all about, and I think I don’t want to miss that opportunity,” Robertson said.
Planning Commission Chair Matt Eckholm indicated that he liked the idea of a vertical farming facility inside the former Sam’s Club building before all the phases of redevelopment come to fruition, though.
“I would encourage you to continue to push to develop that,” Eckholm said to Rappaport. “I don’t see how that really goes against what we’re doing here tonight at all.”
Nevertheless, the planning commission voted to recommend the ideas presented by the consultant and city staff without changes. Commissioner Lynette Dumalag abstained from the vote due to a conflict of interest.
Walther said city staffs intend to present the recommendations to the city council Tuesday, Sept. 3.