Scott County might be 'in' after all

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON
  • Star Tribune
  • November 22, 2011 - 3:32 PM

The Metropolitan Council is backing away from a plan to dish out millions of dollars in subsidies to promote development near mass transit in a way that would have excluded three of the seven metro-area counties, including Scott.

Under the new scheme, the money in the fund won't be limited to areas around stations serving only major transitways, such as light rail lines or the rapid busways emerging on Dakota County's western flank. Express bus stations such as Shakopee's, near Hwy. 169, will be eligible for the money. Carver and Washington counties also would be drawn in, and a bit more of Dakota County.

Lakeville's Wendy Wulff, a holdover from the council appointed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, had objected to the exclusion of neighboring Scott, whose affluent residents pay vast sums of money into the fund. Carver and Washington counties also would have been cut out.

"We've rethought" the original concept, Guy Peterson, a senior figure on the staff, told members of a council committee late Monday. "We heard from other folks who want expansion of that geography, and we've tried to respond."

He also cautioned, however, that the council will want that housing to be "dense and intense": to pack in as many dwelling units as possible into limited space, so as to maximize the number of people able to walk to a bus or train and potentially get along with fewer or even no cars.

"For some cities, it will be an adjustment to think about doing that level of density," he added. "It will be a learning curve. I don't know how receptive some will be to meeting those thresholds."

For light rail or commuter rail station areas, the program contemplates residential projects with minimum densities of 30 to 75 units per acre. For bus stations, the minimum would range from 15 to 50 units. Commercial projects that create jobs also could qualify.

In contrast, a typical single-family subdivision needs at least three units per acre if it expects to have sewer service. Residential density examples available on the Web suggest that 15 to 30 units per acre can be built with townhouses or rowhouses, more or less tightly packed, but much above that requires four-story structures or other taller buildings more typical of cities -- even towers at the higher densities.

Fast-tracking ideas

The program has a total kitty in the range of $30 million, the result of givebacks in recent years from subsidies granted but never spent as the economy nosedived and projects died. Only a portion, $13 million, would be offered in the first year. The money is used for pollution cleanups and other steps needed to make the actual development work.

Monday's presentation was meant solely to inform council members of where the planning for the program is at the moment. It was not presented for a vote. Most council members made approving noises, but some dissented on some points.

Wulff wondered, for instance, why the council would opt for a fast-track approach, in which cities would be expected to pull ideas together in just a few weeks. "We wanted a victory for our new council this year," Peterson said. "Get going on it right away, get something achieved. ... It's helpful for the economy and to get people employed."

Under the original concept, cities along the I-35W and Cedar Avenue busways now being built would have been eligible, including Lakeville, Apple Valley and the far western portion of Eagan. The revised concept also allows the Eagan Transit Station in the heart of that city to be included, as well as Southbridge Crossing on Shakopee's eastern edge.

In addition to density, another source of hesitation for some suburbs -- and for that matter, some city neighborhoods -- will be the council's desire to make affordable housing part of the mix. Council members say that station areas in other cities often end up gentrifying neighborhoods, as people with money snatch up property that allows them a quick stroll to a train to work.

But council member Jennifer Munt of Minnetonka, whose area is to see a new light rail line, said she supports the idea and thinks her cities do as well. "Southwest Corridor cities tell me they will plan differently and plan better knowing this grant money will be available," she said. "The sooner they know it's available, the better they can plan."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

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