The “for sale” signs send a clear, notice-me message to developers: Why not build here?
They call out from vacant parcels of city-owned land across Anoka, urging developers to take a second look at a city that’s been built out for decades.
Unlike several of its neighbors, there’s not much open space left in this northern suburb of 17,000 residents, making redevelopment the name of the game. And the game is heating up.
At least eight projects — mostly a mix of commercial developments and townhouses — are now in the works on sites featured in the city’s real estate “lookbook,” which is simply a collection of photos posted online.
Anoka leaders say this upswing in momentum comes courtesy of aggressive marketing, a rebounding economy and a new community development director, Doug Borglund.
“We’re hitting the market right when it’s hot,” said City Manager Greg Lee. “[Borglund] has been active marketing these properties and been very successful.”
Borglund came to Anoka nearly a year ago with more than two decades of involvement in local government as a planner, administrator and development director in places like Forest Lake and Howard Lake.
One of his first tasks involved getting familiar with Anoka’s development lookbook, a key part of the city’s efforts to get properties back on the tax rolls. In 2010, the city studied tax-exempt land in town and found that just over 20 percent of properties by total market value were nontaxable — a number city leaders say they consider much too high.
Nearby Ramsey and Andover, for instance, had tax-exempt totals closer to 5 and 7 percent, respectively, in 2010, the most recent state data available. Churches, schools and government buildings add to a city’s tax-exempt totals, as do fairground facilities in places like Falcon Heights.
In an effort to remedy its own total, Anoka staff took an inventory of all the scraps and parcels of open city land left in town and assembled the sites in a lookbook. They represent about 90 acres ripe for renewal, Borglund said.
The booklet, for instance, lists a site where city leaders envision a new outdoor restaurant downtown, as well as parcels near the Green Haven Golf Course, where they would like to see some new housing.
City Council members say any development has to be a good long-term fit before a sale goes through.
“The city can be very selective because it owns the sites,” Borglund said.
A tricky balance
The effort to redevelop these plots of land has met occasional resistance from groups that want the land to stay green space.
Last month, city leaders met with residents about a builder’s interest in putting housing on vacant lots that had been used as a neighborhood park.
The feedback was clear.
“The neighborhood didn’t want it to be redeveloped,” Council Member Brian Wesp said. So the city removed the lots, known as Bob Ehlen Park, from its lookbook and placed deed restrictions on them so that they remain park space.
Similar objections arose over land at Rudy Johnson Park, located off Hwy. 10. The city also opted to leave it be.
“It’s a touchy subject,” Lee said. “The city is trying to balance citizens’ desires to keep green space and the desire to reduce their taxes.”
In the coming months, work crews will be breaking ground at sites around town as Borglund and his team nurse ongoing projects “to the finish line,” he said.
“April is kind of go-time for construction,” Borglund said.
The new staffer said his job has benefited from a stronger economy, but other Anoka leaders say Borglund is key to the city’s redevelopment efforts.
“I call him a rock star when I see him,” said Council Member Jeff Weaver. “He brings professionalism and expertise to the table.”