A megaproject that civic leaders have eyed for decades as a landmark in the creation of a Suburbia 2.0 for the Twin Cities is showing signs of disarray.
Arden Hills was supposed to be nearing a deal to create what has been called a "mini Uptown" on 427 acres of a former ammunition plant — a lively, citified town center with towers rising near walkable neighborhoods of single-family homes.
But several key Arden Hills staffers have melted away and not been replaced, City Council challengers are pointing out, and the project is not meeting the deadlines that the city's consultants have laid out. Candidates say they fear the city is letting itself be pushed into a project that's alien to the city's suburban feel.
Both challengers and incumbents worry about how "un-suburban" the proposed plans are. It's striking how much distance incumbents are placing between themselves and the developers they helped choose.
Said Council Member Brenda Holden: "I was in shock when the plan came out. I was like, What?"
The dispute has resonance well beyond Arden Hills. The same issues are springing up across the metro area as suburban leaders press for new islands of urban bustle to support the hoped-for proliferation of high-frequency transit.
Challengers for seats on the Arden Hills City Council, including people who have worked on city commissions for years devising plans for the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant (TCAAP) site, are painting the city's governance as dysfunctional at a critical time for the entire north metro area.
"There's an acute shortage of city staff and the council has a hard time replacing anyone who does leave," said Steven Jones, a planning commission member.
Arden Hills has been without a city administrator for a full year. In recent months, officials in the city's planning and public works domains have departed one by one.
That it's happening when Arden Hills has such a massive blank canvas on which to devise a new look for suburbia is extraordinary, some City Council challengers said.
"These are things that people stand in line for," said Dan Burns, a banker. "And almost more alarming than the number who have left is the lack of urgency to replace them."
Their diagnosis for the shedding of staff: what they call the current council's tendency to micromanage and dither.
"No horse is ever too dead to keep beating on," Jones said. "They need to move things along before they worry about signing off on the shutters being blue."
Jill Hutmacher, who departed for Eagan at midyear after serving as Arden Hills' development chief for six years, declined to confirm or deny the claims that she found the council difficult to work with. She said her new job was "a great opportunity."
Incumbent council members deny micromanaging, saying the departures happened for various personal and professional reasons including higher pay.
"Nothing is not being done or held up," Holden said. She and Mayor David Grant, the lead council members for hiring, say the project is so complex and once-in-a-lifetime that hiring demands extra care.
They said that the new administrator, when he or she arrives, ought to play a role in filling the other jobs. In the meantime, they said, Arden Hills has a sophisticated, well-staffed consulting firm whose collective skill set reaches well beyond what any one hire might offer.
'The suburban feel'
One challenge for all is resistance to the plan proposed by master developer Alatus LLC and its partners. It included a densely packed 1,500 residential units and a condo tower reaching 10 to 12 stories, twice as high as the city's plans called for.
Steve Scott, a longtime council member and former chair of the city's parks and trails commission, said he moved to Arden Hills for "the suburban feel, the trees and open spaces." Alatus' proposal, he said, "really, really cuts down on green space and recreational amenities" in favor of "packed-in density."
Incumbents seem disenchanted as well. The parks criticism is unfair, but the Alatus plan "is different from what the City Council envisioned," Grant said.
Holden added, "I am very, very concerned at the thought of 918 residential units in a three-block area" of the proposed town center, along with the condo tower.
Grant said he was uneasy over the tower's height and the number of apartments proposed.
Consultants laid out a schedule that called for a formal hearing in November on a consensus. Instead, a postelection open house will be held Nov. 16 to allow residents to look at the plans close up.
"There are elements in [the plan] that we didn't envision, there are questions about it, and we think it's best to take it out to the community and ask what they think," Grant said.
The window is open
Incumbents and challengers agree that Ramsey County, which bought the land and has spent tens of millions getting it ready, deserves a role in the process. The county has sought more urbanity than the city has wanted and hoped that an actual developer with money on the line would help provide some reality therapy.
Developers have made it clear in the past that they wish to move quickly. Alatus leader, Bob Lux, told council members in September that "the speed of delivery is important. "Other developments are coming in. We have a great window right now."
Lux noted that officials with Tradition Development, Alatus' homebuilding partner, recall a Lakeville mega-development about a decade ago that was expected to add thousands of homes but got caught up in the housing crash that doomed many in the industry altogether.
As proposals play out in coming years for a more vigorous transit system reaching into the suburbs, tensions in Arden Hills may only spread and deepen. Planners want high concentrations of jobs, homes, or both around stations — including TCAAP, where one huge question is whether to extend the new A Line busway from Rosedale to Arden Hills.
Will Schroeer, executive director of East Metro Strong, a public-private nonprofit, lamented a few months ago in an appearance before the Washington County Board that some communities in the east metro don't seem ready for a future that includes higher-density nodes around proposed transit stations.
"They're ready for one specific future, and that may not happen," he said, as demographics shift, aging households shrink in size, and demand for McMansions weakens.
In Arden Hills, all sides agree that a creative master developer has proposed some nifty features. "I'm looking forward to living there in a sixth-floor unit with views of both downtowns," Jones said. "I think that would be great. It's the 'Hills' of Arden Hills."
Incumbents say they are being deliberate for a reason. "I am very aware," said the mayor, "that we have one chance to make this right."