As home to five of Minnesota’s 26 federal Superfund hazardous-waste sites, Fridley is not an obvious magnet for growth.
But the old railroad town on the banks of the Mississippi River is humming with new construction, the result of tens of millions of dollars in public and private reinvestment. While other north metro suburbs have struggled to restart projects stalled during the economic downturn, Fridley is welcoming developers eager to wade into development that involves extensive environmental cleanup.
City officials and builders say that’s because Fridley has a strong track record of courting developers, committing to long-range planning and embracing its industrial roots.
“Fridley is hot right now,” longtime Mayor Scott Lund said recently as he ticked off the industrial, retail and residential projects reinvigorating the city of 28,0004.
A polluted naval ordnance site near the river is being cleaned up and converted into a 122-acre commercial and industrial center called Northern Stacks. The transformation by Hyde Development has been so lauded that Gov. Mark Dayton came by to turn a shovelful of dirt at last year’s groundbreaking.
Developer Paul Hyde, nationally recognized for overseeing projects that involve environmental cleanup, said it’s critical for aging suburbs to realize they can’t stay frozen in time.
“These cities will die on the vine” if they don’t embrace change, he said. “It’s vital for cities like these to really roll up their sleeves and redevelop these sites.”
Other Fridley projects underway:
• Construction has started at Cielo, a 259-apartment complex blocks from the Northstar commuter rail station. It marks one of the first large-scale developments on the line, which runs 40 miles from downtown Minneapolis to Big Lake.
• Developer John Allen has purchased a prime 27-acre site at Interstate 694 and E. River Road and received approval for a mix of apartments, corporate and industrial uses.
• The city’s main shopping district near Interstate 694 and University Avenue, Fridley Market, has undergone three major changes: The plaza’s Cub Foods completed a $4.2 million renovation, Duluth Trading Company opened its second Twin Cities store, and Fridley remodeled its municipal liquor store.
• Last summer, the city bought the long-shuttered Columbia Arena along University. It plans to bulldoze the old ice arena and rebuild on its highly visible real estate.
• Even Springbrook Nature Center, a 127-acre preserve and interpretive center, will get a $7.6 million reimagining after being included in the state’s bonding bill.
The city’s existing industry includes some powerhouses that help it attract new investment — Medtronic’s world headquarters, Cummins Power Generation and Unity Hospital. And then there’s that industrial history.
“We really grew up on an industrial spine with the railroad and river,” said Scott Hickok, Fridley’s community redevelopment director. “We never forget to be thankful every day for that industry.”
Fridley’s leaders “are the gold standard for communities,” said Allen, owner of Industrial Equities, which will develop the site at 694 and River Road. “They try to figure out how to make a deal work and what are the best interests of the community. They have an uncommonly good understanding of the direction they want to take the city.”
Hyde said he chose a Fridley location for Northern Stacks because of the large acreage available, the location close to downtown Minneapolis and city leaders’ eagerness to facilitate projects. It marks his second cleanup and redevelopment project in the city. When complete, Northern Stacks will include a dozen new buildings with 1.6 million square feet of space. It could house as many as 50 companies, 3,000 new jobs and provide an estimated $3 million in taxes each year.
Fridley is “in the top 10 percent of cities from the staff all the way up to the City Council,” Hyde said. “[City officials] are very proactive and good problem solvers. They are motivated to redevelop these sites. Without their help, we can’t do anything.”
City astute with aid
The city is helping pay for some of the environmental cleanup with a 25-year tax-increment financing district. That means taxes collected on the site will be used to help defray some of the extraordinary expenses associated with an environmental cleanup. State and Metropolitan Council grants also have funneled more than $6 million into the project.
City officials have been “really good partners with the MPCA and the developer Hyde Corporation,” said hydrogeologist Shanna Schmitt, an MPCA project manager overseeing cleanup at the site.
Schmitt said the Superfund label is actually beneficial because it means pollution has been identified and resources are made available for cleanup.
From World War II through the Gulf War, the Northern Stacks site was used for heavy industrial operations, including weapons-systems production, a foundry, welding, degreasing, painting operations, and chemical and fuel storage.
The Cielo apartment project also got some help from the city; Fridley acquired several small parcels from willing owners and razed aging storefronts to create the 6-acre site at a cost of around $6 million. The land then was sold to private developers.
Mayor Lund said he knows the city’s decision to offer incentives and get involved in redevelopment will always rile some of his constituency. But, he said, such involvement has made the pivotal difference between bringing Northern Stacks and Cielo to the city and adding them to the tax rolls.
Fridley is not merely a suburban “bedroom community,” because more people work there than call it home. But as businesses move in, so do people.
Renewed interest in city living and inner-ring suburbs has paid off in Fridley, where Midcentury Modern ramblers and bungalows on tree-lined streets have new cachet with young home buyers.
“We have a real plum here,” Hickok said. “The neighborhoods feel great.”