Big decisions on docket for West St. Paul

  • Article by: LAURIE BLAKE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 31, 2011 - 4:49 PM

Vote set Jan. 9 on two contracts for renovating City Hall and for building a new community sports dome.

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Vadnais Heights is one of several metro-area communities to build sports complexes in recent years. West St. Paul, facing costly repairs to its ice arena, is considering financing a sports dome instead. West St. Paul City Council Member Jim Englin says the dome is needed. “I think the town needs to put a flag in the ground and make a commitment to reenergize itself,” he said.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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West St. Paul is approaching what its mayor calls "a watershed moment."

That moment could come on Jan. 9, when City Council members will face two big decisions: whether to build a new community sports dome, and whether to renovate City Hall.

Those projects could fit into a bigger vision for a "town center" near Robert Street and Wentworth Avenue, a long-discussed plan to tie businesses and public amenities into a marquee district that could eventually sport a transit plaza, a pedestrian bridge and green spaces.

Committing about $14 million to the sports dome and city hall projects could be the first step.

At a council study session last week, Mayor John Zanmiller framed the upcoming vote as a key decision.

"This is a pretty big encumbrance that we are taking on here," he said. "This is a big chunk of money that we are going to be paying out for this."

Two key contracts await council approval: a $494,000 contract with Collaborative Design Group of Minneapolis to design and oversee construction of a 14,000-square-foot, two-story addition on City Hall and a 3,000-square-foot expansion of the police department, and another $131,760 contract with the same firm to design and oversee construction of a community sports dome in the open field next to City Hall.

Council members have included $7.3 million for the City Hall project and $6.4 million for the dome in the city's capital improvement budget. An affirmative vote on the two contracts would, for all intents and purposes, commit the city to the projects, Zanmiller said.

At least two council members, Darlene Lewis and Ed Hansen, said they will vote against the spending.

"I don't think this is the time to do it," said Lewis, who noted that the city is losing businesses on Robert Street and she has recently seen two more vacant houses on her block.

Council member Jim Englin, chief proponent of the sports dome, said the question to ask is "'Why aren't people moving into this town?' I think the town needs to put a flag in the ground and make a commitment to reenergize itself."

Building a dome is one way to do that, Englin said.

Lewis countered that improving City Hall will do nothing to draw more people to town.

Council Member David Wright said the existing City Hall is a "disaster" that wastes energy and lacks space for the police department. Wright said he may want to see the design for the dome before making a final decision on it, but he is convinced that City Hall must be improved.

Although a vote on both contracts was originally scheduled for Dec. 27, Zanmiller chose to move it to the first meeting in January to allow absent Council Member Tony Vitelli to be at the meeting.

As proposed, the City Hall addition would provide new space for offices and a new City Council chambers. Renovation of the existing, largely windowless parts of City Hall would include new windows and a new roof.

If the council votes to proceed, the schedule calls for all City Hall improvements to be finished by the summer of 2013.

The dome -- which would have the space for a full-size soccer field -- would be finished by next October.

The City Hall and sports dome would be included in a new town center between Wentworth and Thompson Avenues along Robert Street.

An early step in creating such a district is re-zoning the area. The first reading of the re-zoning to establish the town center is also awaiting approval by the council on Jan. 9.

The district was first recommended in the Robert Street Renaissance Plan, which the City Council adopted in 2001. That plan was revived by a committee of council members, planning commission members and business owners in 2008, and the town center was recommended again.

The Robert Street Renaissance Plan says the town center "is intended to serve as the primary focus of the community," tying together the City Hall, the Wentworth Library and YMCA "with a compact mixture of commercial, residential and office uses." The area would have open green spaces for community gatherings, a transit plaza, trails and other amenities.

The rezoning would have a limited effect on most of the 50 businesses in the district, but it would make Car-X, Discount Tire, Mister Car Wash and Wood Tub laundromat, along with other auto parts stores and auto repair shops, "non conforming" land uses. That means they could not expand and the property would have to be changed to an accepted use if the business closed for a year.

Once it is established and the preferred uses are outlined, the hope is that over time "the new district will result in redevelopment that will create a 'town center,'" said City Planner Ben Boike.

Laurie Blake • 952-746-3287

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