Slow but steady progress in drawing businesses and residents, a popular commuter rail station and a strengthened economy have Ramsey optimistic that the COR, its rebranded and rejuvenated town center development, will succeed after all.

The north metro suburb’s project, created about 11 years ago as the Ramsey Town Center, aimed to transform soybean fields and vacant land along Hwy. 10 in Anoka County into a bustling suburb with a modern downtown. The ambitious initial vision collapsed in the mid-2000s, crippled by the recession, a key developer’s bankruptcy and suicide, and the fraud convictions of three bank executives who had been involved in the project.

But in 2011, the development, now in city hands, started to rebound with the additions of a Veterans Affairs clinic, the Lunchbox Restaurant and an Allina Health Clinic. A few other businesses have opened, including a Coborn’s Grocery Store and a Caribou coffee. Also in the development are a charter school, several city and county offices, a Subway and a Verizon store.

“The city’s goal is to create a success out of this effort,” said Mayor Sarah Strommen.

Patrick Brama, Ramsey’s economic development manager, said “things are headed in a good direction” since the city meted out $6.75 million to buy 150 acres of vacant land after developer Bruce Nedegaard went bankrupt and died in 2006.

“Since the city’s been involved, there’s been a number of projects that have taken place, and we are getting interest,” Brama said. “There’s a lot of positiveness and positive traction … but it’s all in the context.”

In February, the city brought in a new real estate broker, CBRE, to list 16 properties, totaling about 126 acres, for sale. Although a majority are located within the COR, some are along Hwy. 10 and County Road 47.

Brian Pankratz, the city’s CBRE real estate broker, said in an e-mail that the company has sold one residential property and has four others under contract. “We feel as the market continues to strengthen, we will continue to see demand for additional residential and retail development in The COR,” he wrote.

The city’s goal is to put the development back into the hands of the private sector, but for now, officials are pleased that some progress is being made.

“We’d like to see it go by faster, but we are happy with the market’s slow and steady growth,” said City Administrator Kurt Ulrich.

Riding the rail revival

At the heart of the development is a $13 million Northstar commuter rail station, say Brama and Strommen.

The COR is the “first true transit-oriented development in the Twin Cities metro,” centering around pedestrian mobility and different forms of transportation, Brama said. “So it feels like a downtown, like a somewhat urban development.”

Unlike nearby projects like The Shoppes at Arbor Lakes in Maple Grove or the Riverdale Village in Coon Rapids, the COR also offers housing options.

Last year, an Indianapolis-based developer finished construction on a 230-unit upscale apartment complex that shares a parking garage with the rail station. Brian Moore, a spokesman for the developer Flaherty & Collins Properties, attributes the complex’s 89 percent occupancy rate to the station.

“People are drawn to transit-oriented housing,” he said.

A 50-unit townhouse affordable-housing project about half a mile north of the station is already at full capacity, Ulrich said. And the city recently received a $580,000 transit-oriented development grant for a 47-unit affordable-housing unit called Sunwood Village.

Ramsey’s station is the only Northstar stop to have seen an increase in ridership from 2013 to 2014. The 12 percent growth is reflective of population growth as people move into the new nearby units, Ulrich said.

While the COR’s main driver may be the presence of the rail line, newer development has become dependent on another Ramsey project — the Armstrong Boulevard Interchange, slated to be completed at the end of 2015.

The interchange will eliminate a dangerous bottleneck by removing traffic lights on Hwy. 10 at Armstrong Boulevard.

McDonald’s, which has purchased a piece of nearby land, is timing construction to coincide with completion of the interchange.

City officials hope the new interchange will bring even more business to the area.

Pankratz said in an e-mail that the new interchange “will help draw new developers and prospective users as the access to Hwy. 10 will greatly improve and the delays from rail traffic will be eliminated.”

And at the end of the day, such developments rely on “access and rooftops,” said retail consultant Jim McComb.

An ‘optimistic’ picture

Local retail broker Dick Grones said there are many reasons why the COR has had a harder road than a loosely similar project nearby, Maple Grove’s Shoppes at Arbor Lakes.

For one, he said, Maple Grove is “so established,” with a higher median income than Ramsey’s. And Maple Grove’s population is large enough to supports its development. But in Ramsey, “the density is not enough to support [the COR],” he said.

McComb said the COR’s original developers were seeking a “level of density that is not common in suburbs of this type.”

The greatest impediment to the early visions of the COR probably was the housing recession, he said. The city population spike Ramsey had projected never materialized, and in 2008, when the development was at an intense phase, the housing market tanked.

Even now, “the market has to catch up with the opportunity,” McComb said.

Strommen said city leaders, including City Council members, are determined to nurture the project and see it succeed. “Nobody is saying, ‘Dump it and move on,’” she said.

“Worst-case scenario is, it takes longer then any of us hope, but there’s also great faith that time will,” the mayor said. “And I still think the picture is optimistic.”

 

Twitter: @KarenAnelZamora