Year in review: Burnsville looked to the future in 2017

The future of Burnsville Center in a changing retail environment was on the minds of city and business leaders in 2017. (Photo by John Gessner)

Burnsville Center, new-look apartments were on the agenda

Burnsville looks pretty much the same as it did a year ago. But changes brewing in 2017 promised to reshape the city’s landscape in the years and decades ahead.

A new City Council reversed the city’s longstanding resistance to apartment construction. Now at least two projects are in the works, including a high-rise. The council also eased neighborhood zoning restrictions to allow accessory dwellings and short-term home rentals.

City and business leaders raised concerns about Burnsville Center, County Road 42’s economic engine, which has struggled with vacancies in a changing retail environment.

Planning continued for a new freeway bridge over the Minnesota River and a new bus rapid transit line that will have two stops in Burnsville and likely a third, each with potential for new development.

And the council approved a draft of Burnsville’s new comprehensive plan, which addresses development challenges and opportunities for keeping the aging city vital.

Here’s a look back at 2017 from the pages of Burnsville-Eagan Sun Thisweek.

Burnsville Center

The city of Burnsville pulled no punches in its bid for a major grant to jump-start revitalization of Burnsville Center.

Jobs, tax revenue and investments are at stake, the city says. If the center closes, the surrounding retail corridor built up over the last 40 years could wither. The whole south metro area would feel the effects.

Mall manager and co-owner CBL & Associates Properties has estimated that 19 of the center’s 150 retail spaces are vacant, resulting in about 300 job losses, according to the city’s application for a grant in the 2017 Mayors Challenge sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Burnsville is one of more than 500 cities that applied. One will win a $5 million grant, four will win $1 million and 35 will get $100,000. The first round of awards is expected in January.

A group of about 20 city and business leaders worked on the application, whose recommendations include mixed uses including housing in underused parking areas, public gathering spaces and an “entrepreneurial zone” to help start-up businesses afford vacant tenant spaces in the mall.

“No one is trying to say retail won’t be part of the mix,” Burnsville Chamber of Commerce President Jennifer Harmening said in November. “I think retail will be a big part of the mix. Retail doesn’t seem to need as much square footage as it used to.”

There’s “a lot of talk on the table,” Joe Duperre, the center’s new general manager, said in November. “I’ve been here almost six months now, and obviously we’re going to make some changes here.”

Comp plan

Approved by the council in December, the city’s updated comprehensive plan includes land-use and development concepts for four areas:

The Heart of the City, where pockets of land remain undeveloped; the Orange Line bus rapid transit stations at Nicollet Avenue in the Heart of the city and Burnsville Parkway (both expected in 2019), and a future station in the Burnsville Center area; the heavily industrial Minnesota River Quadrant west of Interstate 35W and north of Highway 13; and the Cliff Road Business Park, which has a number of aging buildings.

The Burnsville Center/County Road 42 retail corridor was added to the plan as an area of concern, and new land-use guidance was drafted to accommodate potential new uses.

The comprehensive plan, which will guide growth and development for the next two decades, now undergoes review by the Metropolitan Council and local governments.

New apartments

The City Council, with newly sworn members Dan Gustafson and Cara Schulz, agreed in January to reverse the city’s longstanding refusal to entertain zoning changes to accommodate new apartment projects.

A proposed four-story “luxury” project with up to 172 units on vacant land at Nicollet Avenue South and Travelers Trail in the Heart of the City was the catalyst for a council eager to get in on some of the development it had been missing as the housing market changed.

In April the council approved the project, which was immediately blocked by the its neighbor, the Nicollet Plaza retail center anchored by Cub Foods. Nicollet Plaza LLC filed suit, claiming the apartments have insufficient parking and would encroach on mall parking.

The mall owner withheld its approval of the apartment plans under a set of private agreements governing easements and other arrangements between the neighboring landowners. Without signed agreements, the project can’t go forward, the mall owner argued. The mall and the apartment property are part of a single planned unit development approved in 2004.

The project remains tied up in Dakota County District Court.

Would-be developers of another apartment project on the other end of town came to the council in July. Council members agreed to entertain plans for multistory buildings with up to 446 luxury units on a prominent piece of unused land east of Interstate 35E and Grand Avenue and north of Southcross Drive.

Tom Healey, president of developer Healey Ramme Co., said the project, with buildings as high as six or eight stories, would set the standard for high-density housing in Burnsville.

“There’s a demand,” he told the council at a work session. “The community is changing its approach to where it’s going to live. It’s not as much oriented toward home ownership as it used to be.”

The project is “denser than anything we’ve had here in Burnsville,” Mayor Elizabeth Kautz said. City officials recommended the developer conduct noise and traffic studies.

New council

members

New City Council members Dan Gustafson and Cara Schulz were seated in January after winning a four-way race for two seats in November 2016. Mayor Elizabeth Kautz began her eighth term after running unopposed.

Gustafson, who had served two terms before not seeking re-election in 2012, and Schulz, who ran in 2014, were instrumental in reshaping a council majority behind allowing new apartment projects, some accessory dwellings on single-family lots and short-term home rentals.

Accessory dwellings

City Council members agreed Nov. 6 to consider ordinance changes allowing accessory dwelling units on single-family lots.

Lifting the city’s prohibition on ADUs — sometimes labeled “granny flats” where aging parents or adult children stay — would be an acknowledgment that housing demands are changing, supporters said.

All five council members voiced support for permanent attached ADUs. Four of five said they’ll consider allowing detached units on lots of an acre or more. Council Member Bill Coughlin said he’s not ready to consider detached units.

The council didn’t find majority backing for temporary ADUs, also known as mobile “tiny homes.” City ordinance allows them in Burnsville’s three mobile home parks.

A council majority also rejected allowing temporary health care dwelling units on single-family lots. The city will continue to opt out of a state law that allows the structures.

Short-term rentals

The City Council voted Dec. 5 to reverse its January 2016 ban on short-term housing rentals popularized in the “sharing” economy by businesses such as Airbnb and VRBO.

With two new members prodding this year’s change of heart, the council reworked its previous ordinance on short-term rentals (fewer than 30 consecutive days). Where it once declared that rental of private homes “disturbs” residential neighborhoods, the ordinance now states that “unregulated” rental “can” disturb neighborhoods.

Short-term rental properties must be homesteaded, and owners must pay a $50 permit fee annually.

The decision was preceded by months of study and a public hearing.

Church expansion

Berean Baptist Church, founded in 1963, is the nation’s 10th-fastest-growing church, according to a survey of Protestant churches by evangelical research group Lifeway Research. The finding was announced in September in Outreach magazine.

Berean, located at 309 County Road 42 E., added 669 people in 2016. Worship attendance has grown by 30 percent since 2014, and member giving by 24 percent. The church has expanded its worship space to a “simulcast” location in rented space at Kenwood Trail Middle School in Lakeville.

The church is now building a 30,000-square-foot expansion on church-owned land in Burnsville. The project’s centerpiece is a 1,046-seat worship auditorium west of the current church building, across Plymouth Avenue.

The City Council approved the expansion Feb. 21, capping months of neighborhood controversy over what some nearby residents called an imposing “megachurch” project. The approved plans include generous screening and traffic-control measures to guide churchgoers away from the adjacent Interlachen Woods neighborhood.

Hotel revivals

Employees of the Best Western Premier Nicollet Inn celebrated in 2017 after the former Holiday Inn Burnsville was named 2016 Large Property of the Year by the Minnesota Lodging Association.

The hotel, a five-story, two-tone brick building overlooking the junction of interstates 35E and 35W, drifted into disrepair in the 2000s. Further buffeted by recession and low occupancy, Holiday Inn Burnsville was one of a number of Minnesota lodging properties that eventually went back to the bank.

In 2010 it became a reclamation project for new owner Blithe Hospitality Group, which had bought the old Super 8 Hotel in Lakeville and transformed it into Holiday Inn Lakeville and Rudy’s Redeye Grill.

Six years and several million dollars later, Burnsville’s flagship hotel has completed its turnaround with the high honor.

The former Country Inn and Suites by Carlson had an eventful 2017 as a new ownership group worked to turn the ailing property around.

Now the AmericInn Burnsville, it was bought in July 2016 by Plymouth-based Ruhr Development, which owns and operates 14 lodging properties in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin.

The property made history in 1987 as the first Country Inn and Suites by Carlson, now a widely franchised brand built by the iconic Carlson Companies.

But the Burnsville property, which eventually became a Days Inn, fell into disrepair and had become what the new owners described as a crime magnet.

“It is undeniable that it was on its heels. The great thing about that property is its history,” said Amie Burrill, executive director of Experience Burnsville, the local convention and visitors bureau.

Ruhr is spending $3.5 million for the hotel and a top-to-bottom renovation that will restore its standing among Burnsville’s nine lodging properties as a reputable, midpriced, limited-service hotel, President Jeff Ruhr said.

Restaurant was

local institution

Stephano’s Restaurant and Lounge, which opened in 1992 and built a strong reputation as a local gathering spot, closed in April.

“It’s been a really good 25 years,” said its Lebanese-born restaurateur, Stephano Awada, who specialized in Italian cuisine with a Mediterranean influence.

The proprietor’s high-touch approach won him many fans and friends, from families who kept coming back for birthday and graduation receptions to politicians — including former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, of Eagan, and Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz — who used Awada’s banquet room for campaign kickoffs or election-night vote tallies.

“We’re losing an institution, and it’s comparable to Charlie’s (Cafe Exceptionale) in Minneapolis and Mancini’s in St. Paul,” said Mike O’Connor, a longtime Awada friend and Burnsville resident who served as village clerk in the 1960s.

Another independent restaurant will replace Stephano’s in the building at 11849 Millpond Ave.

Burnsville resident Melanie Vejdani is renovating the building in preparation for what she says will be Minnesota’s first gluten-free, dairy-free and organic eatery.

Olivia’s Organic Cafe is named for Vejdani’s daughter, who has Asperger syndrome and special dietary needs. The family went gluten- and dairy-free several years ago.

The organic food aspect alone (no pesticides, additives, fertilizers, GMOs) is unique to the south metro, Vejdani said. Add gluten- and dairy-free, and she knows of no similar restaurant.

Look for an April 2018 opening, she said in July.

Landfill

Closing the dormant Freeway Landfill west of I-35W with a lined facility that will remove the threat of groundwater and Minnesota River contamination is the city’s top legislative priority for 2018, city officials said in December.

State officials are still working with the landowner to reach an agreement, City Manager Heather Johnston said. State legislation passed in 2017 was aimed directly at the long standoff between the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and landfill trustee Michael McGowan.

The legislation required the landfill owner to sign a binding agreement entering the property into the state’s Closed Landfill Program. The MPCA also gained authority to require “priority qualified facilities” through eminent domain.

The law changes were meant to halt a federal Superfund action seeking recovery from about 180 parties to fund a cleanup estimated at $70 million.

A win for mobile

home park

The city is appealing a Feb. 8 ruling against it over property inspections and enforcement at Rambush Estates Manufactured Home Park.

Dakota County District Judge Colleen G. King ruled that the city exceeded its authority in 2015 by inspecting the park and ordering corrective actions — primarily for “nonconforming” carports and attached awnings, outdoor storage and trash containers left in view.

The ruling came in a class action lawsuit filed by Rambush Estate homeowner Kathryn Eich, who was told her carport and a trash container and wheelbarrow on her rented lot violated city code.

Rambush Estates was inspected as part of a three-year program to inspect all Burnsville properties for code violations. The city has replaced its traditional complaint-driven approach to property-code inspections with a “proactive” approach.

Ames Center

The city-owned performing arts center in the Heart of the City had its best year since opening in 2009.

Officials said this year the center finished 2016 with a $32,447 operating loss, far below the $98,166 loss forecast in its budget. It was the third straight year of sub-$100,000 operating losses, and an improvement over 2015’s $87,717 loss.

And after the center’s shaky beginning — it lost $547,854 in 2009, the year it opened, according to the center’s 2015 annual report — city officials were pleased.

The Chameleon Theatre Circle, which has staged plays and musicals in the center’s black box theater since it opened, announced in March it would end the relationship after its season ended in June.

The eclectic, south metro-based company cited Ames Center management’s decision to “disallow” a play with the word “mulatto” in the title.

The play — “Caucasian-Aggressive Pandas and Other Mulatto Tales” by mixed-race actor, director and playwright Duck Washington — was one of six shows Chameleon proposed for its 2017-18 season in the 150-seat black box theater.

City Council Members Cara Schulz and Dan Gustafson and a group called the National Coalition Against Censorship accused the Ames Center of censorship.

Brian Luther, the center’s executive director, told the council in May his objection came down to one word in the title, “mulatto” — which the playwright himself says is derogatory to many, an issue explored in the play.

“One thing I will not do is censor content onstage,” Luther said.

Burnsville history

The Burnsville Historical Society was busy this year, committing thousands of photos, documents and newspaper pages and articles to its website.

The group celebrated its new digital direction with an October-November exhibit at the Ames Center called “Doing the Digital Thing.”

During the exhibit, the group taped an interview of recollections about the historic 1994 Burnsville High School arson fire with former Principal Howard Hall, former District 191 Assistant Superintendent Gerry Ackermann and former School Board Member Vicki Roy.

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