The University of Minnesota has launched its vision of an eco-friendly city in rural Dakota County, and right now, it looks an awful lot like a gravel pit.
In fact, it is a gravel pit. It’s hidden from County Road 46 by grassy berms planted with little trees, except for the gated road where semitrailer trucks constantly come and go. Beyond them, big machines scrape sand, dirt and rocks out of the earth and heap them into immense piles that dwarf the trucks rolling around them.
After eight years of planning, the vision for the University of Minnesota Outreach, Research and Education (UMore) Park is taking shape on the ground. Someday, as many as 35,000 people could live, work and play in a community carefully planned for walkability, transit and environmental friendliness.
Pressure is mounting as Rosemount and Apple Valley have marched close to the borders of the property, and the U has an opportunity to show the Twin Cities the sustainable way to grow, said Tom Fisher, dean of the U’s College of Design.
“This is a location that’s getting to be pretty critically important for the development future of the Twin Cities,” said Fisher, who sits on the board of the university-created corporation UMore Development LLC.
Some regents, including Laura Brod and John Frobenius, welcome the revenue from mining but are leery of the university becoming a real estate developer. Bill Gleason, a retired professor who has lambasted UMore Park on his blog, calls the whole thing a “cesspool” and wants the university to focus on improving its urban home.
Yet the transformation of the largest single-owner development parcel in the Twin Cities is underway. This fall, UMore Development hopes to start seeking development partners for the first 730 acres.
Before the U can delve into residential real estate, however, it had to get into the mining business.
Ten thousand years ago, melting glaciers laid down a thick blanket of high-quality sand and gravel on what would become southern Dakota County. In the late 1940s, the U became the owner of a vast and polluted tract that included the former Gopher Ordnance Works, where workers made smokeless gunpowder for cannon shells during World War II.
For years, UMore Park was used mainly for farming and agricultural research. More than 2,800 acres, called the Vermillion Highlands, were set aside for conservation. Then the U, scrambling for new funding after deep cuts from lawmakers, realized it was sitting on a potential cash cow.
“The intent was to look at this property and find the best and highest use, and also to assess opportunities for developing new revenue streams for the university,” said Carla Carlson, a university employee who’s stepping down this summer as chief manager of UMore Development LLC. Since the real estate goals take longer and depend on market factors, aggregate mining was a “good option” to make money for the U, she said.
The U’s contract with Dakota Aggregates LLC (wholly owned by Cemstone Products and Ames Construction) was signed in June 2011. It allows Dakota Aggregates to mine on 1,722 acres — nearly 35 percent of the UMore Park property — over the next 40 years. In exchange, the U pockets an upfront $5 million fee and subsequent royalties on the gravel, sand, clay and other products. The U estimates it could generate $3 million to $5 million each year.
All that mining will create a large hole. The U’s planners have figured out how to turn that into an asset. Once the hole fills with water, it becomes a 260-acre lake that’s a focal point of the U’s new planned city.
The Environmental Impact Statement in 2010 found that the mining project will actually benefit water quality, because stormwater will be stored and treated, instead of just running off.
The Minnesota Department of Health warned that the new lake may allow pollution to seep into the aquifer that provides Rosemount’s drinking water. But planners say they’ll monitor the situation to make sure that doesn’t happen.
If a high-speed rail line someday connects Rochester and St. Paul, it may have a stop right at UMore Park, so commuters won’t have to get in cars to get to work.
It sounds like a perfect plan. Can the U build utopia on a gravel foundation? I’ll believe it when I see it.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116. Read his blog at startribune.com/fulldisclosure.