Rick Harrison designs suburban developments for a living. So it fascinates him to watch the suburban town center movement, which seeks to sprinkle charming little Uptowns all across the ’burbs.
Flying over them in his plane, camera at the ready, he often notices conventional development thriving near government-inspired installations that are obviously flagging.
“ ‘Space for lease,’ ” he said, quoting a typical sign, “is not a tenant.”
Pretty soon he can start eyeing what may be the premier chance to get it right: hundreds of acres in Arden Hills that have waited for decades to be repurposed as a model of walkable live-work-play urbanity, deep in the heart of the northern suburbs.
Bob Lux of Alatus LLC, selected last week as the site’s master developer, vows that the lessons have been learned and this one is going to get it right.
“This will be unlike anything else in this area,” he said. “I think as we roll out our vision, people will be unbelievably excited.”
Competitors who sought the right to develop Rice Creek Commons, the brand name for what’s better known as TCAAP — the long-abandoned Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant site — warned public officials overseeing the project about visionary town centers that wilted into ghost towns.
Ramsey County Commissioner Blake Huffman admits that “multimillion-dollar questions … monster questions” hang over the Rice Creek project as it seeks to dodge the same pitfalls.
But he’s also sure that a powerful yearning exists for a variety of urban amenities.
“I can’t go a week without someone saying, ‘We want more movie theaters, more restaurants, more destinations’ in the north metro,” said Huffman, of Shoreview. “Consistently, consistently.”
Huffman himself regularly makes what can be an hour’s round trip to St. Louis Park’s West End, a sidewalk-cafe-and-movie-night swatch of urbanity whose vast underground parking levels can be jammed on a Tuesday night.
A suburban Uptown?
A lot of professionals, though, remain skeptical about Rice Creek Commons.
“People, a lot of times, want the amenities, but they don’t want the residential density that the amenities need to succeed,” said John Shardlow, a leading development consultant.
“I was just at a public meeting where one topic was opposition to an apartment building, and another topic a few minutes later was a desire for more businesses downtown. And no one saw the irony.”
Arden Hills’ development director shies away from the term “urban village,” while Huffman embraces it, speaking cheerfully of a suburban Uptown.
Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega told colleagues last winter that he and Huffman “for months have been grappling with” Arden Hills’ resistance to urban densities thought to be needed to support the amenities.
“The last meeting was four hours long,” he said. The moment to “face reality,” he added, will be the presence of an actual developer with capital on the line.
That would be Lux, who said he is convinced Alatus has “a strategy to ensure that when the town center opens, it will work well from Day 1, the restaurants will be busy from Day 1.”
While Lux declined to point to existing suburban projects as a sign of what to expect, Huffman pointed to elements of Edina’s Centennial Lakes, which weaves offices, homes and stores along a sparkling water feature.
He also suggested a Google inspection of what is called a “high-end mall with a village vibe”: Glen Town Center in Glenview, Ill., an affluent Chicago suburb.
For all his general skepticism, Harrison also points to Centennial Lakes in Edina as an undeniable success even if he thinks its brand of strip mall retail is unlikely to transfer to Arden Hills. Centennial Lakes proved the importance of “spectacular features” that draw people in vs. humdrum seen-it-all-before standardization, Harrison said.
Both Huffman and Harrison mentioned as another model the Stapleton neighborhood in Denver, an in-city megaproject that sprang up on the site of a decommissioned airport. Harrison said it features “great architecture,” unlike many bland town centers that look alike.
Lux agrees that design will be key, not only with the buildings but everywhere. He mentioned plans to draw on the expertise of people who shape the earth for high-end golf courses, who can make the whole site a surprise.
“It’s not about building buildings,” he said, “but creating a complete environment.”
As for the Rice Creek Commons name — which Ramsey County officials chose and Arden Hills residents seem to dislike — Lux said that will be the developer’s call. Even though there’s a website to promote the development under the Rice Creek moniker, the site formerly known as TCAAP may well end up with yet another brand.