Edina is debating what to do with its former public works site, one of the few vacant city-owned parcels of land that could be used for a public purpose.
The 3.3 acres at 5146 Eden Av. is at the heart of the Grandview district, a part of the city slated for a redesign that would include traffic calming, more bike and pedestrian ways, green spaces, transit links and perhaps more housing.
What to do with the land has become a tug-of-war between the City Council and some members of an advisory group that studied the area's future. A majority of council members favored asking developers to propose uses for the property. But a proposal to do that was pulled after most members of a small advisory group objected, suggesting that instead the city should hire a consultant to explore purposes for the site in consultation with residents.
For years, Kim Montgomery has been pushing the city to keep the site as a possible home for a new community center. She was involved with early planning in the area and is one of the drivers behind a website called Citizens for a Better Grandview.
"The process all along has been skewed toward a certain outcome, and that outcome is one that favors developers," she said. "My greatest fear is that this will be turned over to developers, after all this work, before we have defined the public use."
On May 20, the council is expected to decide whether to reach out to developers or hire a consultant.
Mayor Jim Hovland said that with a wealth of fitness option in the city, including private health clubs and a recently remodeled YMCA, he isn't sure the city needs a new community center. Many cities are losing money on such centers, he said.
"I don't hear any clamoring out there for a community center, like we did for a sports dome," he said. "I'm reluctant to go there."
Montgomery and other residents began pushing the city to keep the property as a possible site for a new community center in 2008, when the city's public works facility was moved and the old building was razed. Montgomery argues that in a fully developed suburb like Edina, vacant city-owned land is precious and should be used for the highest public purpose.
She worries that few Edina residents know that the future of the former public works site is up for grabs.
"I think what needs to happen is the public needs to be informed first and start communicating with the City Council, saying they want to keep public land and that they want a community center," she said.
Bill Neuendorf, the city's economic development director, said the issue of whether the city needs a new community center is "the million-dollar question."
"Some people say we do; others say we don't," he said. "And others say we do, but they don't want to pay for it."
Residents weigh in
In January and February, the city surveyed residents about the Grandview area. Asked whether they would support a new community center at the former public works site, 53 percent said they would support one, while 40 percent said they would oppose it. Asked what type of amenities they would most favor there, 30 percent wanted a fitness center, 20 percent favored a performing arts center, 16 percent liked an indoor pool and 14 percent wanted meeting rooms.
Fifty-four percent said they were likely to use a community center, but 38 percent said they were not willing to pay more property taxes to build one. Fifty-nine percent were willing to see a property tax hike.
Edina already has a community center that is owned by the Edina public schools. The former Edina East High School at 5701 Normandale Blvd. is home to district headquarters, community education, a French immersion school program and has other spaces like a dance studio and kitchen that are used mostly by community education.
Montgomery thinks the city needs something more. She believes Edina is falling behind other communities that have more complete facilities at their community centers.
"There is no true recreation there; it's a school building that's been repurposed," she said. "It's often taken up by meetings."
Though Montgomery said she fears the Edina schools may need the building back if enrollment goes up, Hovland said he has been assured by school officials that even if enrollment increases, they would need only a small portion of the building.
Neuendorf said the city could use more performing arts space, recreational spaces like gyms and multipurpose rooms that can be used for a variety of events. The council will hear a presentation on what residents said in the winter survey on May 6.
Neuendorf said he understands why some people are concerned about the city's plan to let developers shape proposals for the site.
"I think a lot of people have concerns about working with the redevelopment community; some have reputations not much better than used-car salesmen," he said. "But as the City Council gave us direction on how to move forward, it was rooted in the assumption that the city owns the land and controls anything that happens on it.
"They were definitely united that the city does not want to relinquish control of the site."
Montgomery said developers have no incentive to include public space in their plans. She thinks the city should follow the planning model of Vancouver, Wash., where the city got cost estimates on features that could go into a community center, did a detailed market analysis and held open houses for residents.
"They said, here are possible things you as a community could have in a community facility, and here are the costs, and here are the trends, and based on this information, what's most important to you as a community?" she said. "Then they took the data from community meetings and designed the facility.
"I think part of the problem here is that because the city has not talked about a community center, people can't envision it. They don't know it's a possibility."
Hovland said that after three years of study about the site's future, the proposal to seek the input of developers reflected the wishes of a larger group that studied the Grandview area. He said there is nothing wrong with asking for proposals that may result in "private investment for public purpose" on a site that the city owns and controls. The city does need more performing space, he said, and that might be a component of development there.
"We need to be creative and innovative with this opportunity; what's wrong with seeing what the private sector thinks of it?" he said. "We own the land. If we don't like what we see as a council, we don't have to do it."