Now the townhouses, greenways, offices and parks of Bloomington's South Loop District exist only on paper. But after more than three-and-a-half years of planning, the vision for a massive development that city officials say will steer Bloomington's future is expected to go to the City Council for approval in January.

"It's the most important plan I've ever presented to the city," said Larry Lee, the city's longtime director of community development. "If we're successful in doing this, it guarantees Bloomington's future for the next 40 years."

The South Loop is a triangle of land in the city's northeast corner, bordered by Interstate 494, Cedar Avenue and the Minnesota River. It includes the Mall of America, businesses like HealthPartners' corporate offices, the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge headquarters and a neighborhood of single-family homes. But much of the South Loop now is made up of vast parking lots.

With four light rail stations and the international airport next door, plans call for roughly 1,000 developable acres to be transformed into a dense urban neighborhood. In the area around the intersection of 34th Avenue and American Boulevard, townhouses, condos and apartment buildings will line streets designed for walkers and bikers, with quick access to light rail, the mall and new trailheads in the wildlife refuge. The plan includes four small new parks, and an extended Lindau Lane would stretch as a greenway from the mall almost to the river.

City projections estimate that by 2030, South Loop will add almost 3,000 new residents, more than 14,000 new jobs and 1,790 residential units. While some of the job growth is tied to new hotels and retail, most would be in office and technical fields.

With Bloomington a nearly fully developed city, two-thirds of the city's new jobs are expected to come from South Loop developments.

Lee said the development is an answer to a mismatch between the existing housing stock and the type of housing increasing numbers of people want.

"Research has shown that between 30 and 40 percent of people want a housing unit in a higher density, walkable area," he said. "In the Twin Cities, only 10 percent of housing meets that description. There's a mismatch between desire and supply.

"The last time we had that mismatch was in the 1950s, when we built all these single-family homes."

Housing in that northeast corner of the South Loop and new offices near the HealthPartners and Reflections condo properties will probably be the first projects to be built, Lee said. Connections to the wildlife refuge, including paths and the construction of new trailheads, would also happen quickly.

It's a matter of marketing, Lee said.

"Buyers need to see what they're buying their property for," he said. "If they can only stand in their home on the 12th floor and only look at the refuge, that doesn't cut it."

Energy system eyed

Located near the environmentally sensitive river and wildlife refuge, the development would feature rain gardens and natural plantings that absorb storm water on site. The city is investigating the feasibility of setting up a district energy system that would capture waste heat from electricity generation and use it to heat and cool buildings in the area. Lee said the goal would be to have the system operated by a private company, not by the city.

The first visible sign of the project, which would not be complete until 2050, is street work. Lee describes Lindau Lane as the South Loop's spine. The $49.5 million job of lowering the street 20 feet as it comes off Hwy. 77 and extending it to 30th Avenue should be done by 2014. In one area the street will become a tunnel. The bridge above would become a pad for new buildings that are part of the Mall of America's expansion.

Improvements through 2019, including the Lindau Lane project, are expected to total about $80 million, Lee said. State bonding money of $15.5 million has been received for the street project, and most of the rest of the cost falls on the city. Tax increment financing and money from a liquor and lodging tax will help pay for those changes. Property taxes are not used for such developments, Lee said.

The City Council is expected to have a public hearing on the South Loop plan on Jan. 23. Many more steps involving the city Planning Commission and the Metropolitan Council will come before development begins in earnest.

More information about the South Loop, including a link to the district plan, is available at .

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan