Developers eyeing sites, building along Southwest light rail line

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 5, 2014 - 10:00 PM

While the Southwest line hasn’t yet gotten approval, developers already are pitching plans along the five-city route.

While the proposed Southwest Corridor light-rail line sits in limbo amid a dispute over its route, developers are already eagerly eyeing sites along the line’s west metro cities — and some aren’t waiting for it to get the green light.

The nearly 16-mile line, which faces a key vote on its route from the Metropolitan Council on Wednesday, is the longest of the three Twin Cities light-rail lines and the first to incorporate development planning into the engineering of the line from Minneapolis through the western suburbs of St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie.

“We’re essentially setting the table for development,” said Peter McLaughlin, a Hennepin County commissioner.

Nearly 14 million square feet of new office space, 1.2 million square feet of retail and more than 13,000 new residential units are projected to go up along the line, according to the county. And while final approval and construction of the line is still far off — it’s projected to open in 2019 — the cities that will host it are already seeing a boost in development near the 16 proposed stations.

St. Louis Park, for instance, has had an influx in condos, apartments and senior housing near a proposed station, and in Hopkins, a 163-unit apartment building is slated to open in May a block from a station.

Other developers are holding off to see if the line is approved.

“It’s hard to plan if you have no idea if the line is going to happen and when,” said Colleen Carey, president of the Cornerstone Group, a Richfield-based real estate company, which has talked to west metro cities about possible development along the line. But, she added: “It doesn’t feel like there’s any big rush.”

Reshaping the area

As controversy swirls over the light-rail line’s exact route, many city and county leaders have been working on a related but far-less-public effort — planning development and community changes.

In fact, it’s one of the only light-rail projects in the country that has included planning of all 16 stations at once, said Katie Walker, who oversees light-rail community planning for Hennepin County.

Officials have been discussing everything from adding bike connections to improving sidewalks for pedestrians near stations, helping make the suburbs less car-oriented and more walkable, which could in turn boost ridership, she said.

“It’s really reshaping the area,” Walker said.

Also, nearly a dozen small changes were made to the engineering of the line to boost development — a strategy that wasn’t part of the metro area’s other two light-rail lines.

Park-and-ride stations were cut from 15 to seven so there will be fewer parking facilities and more space for development. Planners also shifted the station platforms slightly at Blake Road in Hopkins and along Shady Oak Road, on the border of Hopkins and Minnetonka, to open up larger parcels of land for redevelopment. That translates, Walker said, into less land acquisition needed for the line, which can save money and increase space for development.

“We’re trying to optimize the cost-effectiveness of the line and development along the line,” McLaughlin added. “We’re trying to walk and chew gum at the same time.”

Hennepin County already has invested $28.5 million along the Southwest line, largely for environmental cleanup, affordable housing and transit-oriented development — more than was spent along the Green Line that goes from Minneapolis to St. Paul.

“There’s a recognition that LRT is a game-changer and will be for that corridor,” said Jan Callison, a Hennepin County commissioner for the area that includes Eden Prairie, Hopkins and Minnetonka. “We can’t predict what private development would come in. But we know these lines are catalysts for development.”

While some developers are holding off until light-rail plans are more concrete, others are building projects near proposed stations, encouraged by the possibility of a line that’s projected to average 30,000 rides every weekday by 2030.

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