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Taking the lead
Marc Nevinski, Coon Rapids’ community development director, said the city has acted as a master developer in several of the ports, buying small pieces of land, cleaning them up and combining them to create acreage for bigger projects. Coon Rapids, like many suburban cities, has to do the initial land acquisition and cleanup for redevelopment because developers won’t, he said.
“We had to lead the charge. We have been courting the private market for years and not getting anywhere. … We need to do site assembly to attract the larger developers,” he said. “The talk of public investment gets the private sector engaged.”
Mayor Howe said that he and others on the council understand the city needs to shepherd this project and that it does require public investment. “It’s a tough sell to the community itself. We have to make a major investment, but long term, we think it’s worth it,” Howe said.
Land is another issue. Coon Rapids Boulevard is surrounded by established neighborhoods, which can limit the scale of any project. “We don’t have a lot of depth to the properties. They are all sort of small parcels,” Nevinski said.
Assembling larger sites for redevelopment can take years. The city, with the help of state dollars, has cleaned up after an old gas station, a dry cleaner and an unofficial dump site, where crews unearthed 2,000 old tires.
Redevelopment also means change for residents, many of whom still favor older suburban ideals and don’t always embrace the idea of mixed use — new offices and businesses near their neighborhood.
Finally, it takes patience.
“This stuff gets measured in decades. It takes time to do the site assembly. It takes time to attract developers and buyers, and it takes time to absorb. You can only absorb so much housing at one time,” Nevinski said.
One other goal is to change the mood of the boulevard: to add sidewalks, vegetation, trail connections to the community to make it visually appealing and pedestrian-friendly. The city wants to tie the boulevard to the beauty of Coon Creek, the Coon Rapids Dam and other sites. “It’s extremely scenic. We are trying to leverage that,” Nevinski said.
Rethinking Coon Rapids’ future means looking beyond the commercial hub, city leaders say. To attract new residents, the city is also investing in its neighborhoods house by house. Its “Home for Generations” program has attracted national attention.
The city bought five older homes, including a 1960s rambler and a 1970s split level, and remodeled them for modern living. More than 8,000 residents toured the model homes, and the city believes it spurred more than 100 remodels in surrounding neighborhoods, judging by building permit data.
Now the city is offering up to $5,000 to homeowners undertaking large-scale remodels. More than 40 homeowners have approached officials about the grant program.
In November, voters agreed to spend $17.4 million to redo nine city parks, build a new park and expand the trails system. City leaders say a flourishing parks and trails system will keep Coon Rapids competitive.
At the same time, Nevinski said that even amid the wave of empty nesters and millennials moving to the urban core, suburbs are still a great place to raise a family and that some reinvestment by cities will add to that strength.
“There will always be a percentage of the population that wants to be in a very urban environment,” he said. “There are more people who want to be in a suburban environment. You have more space. You can own your own home. You’ve got a yard, good schools and safe neighborhoods. And we’ve got great parks.”
Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804