The possibility of Lake Elmo becoming the end point for the proposed Gold Line rapid busway to downtown St. Paul is playing a role in a yearlong moratorium on growth imposed last week by the City Council.
The line has officially been described as running from the Union Depot in St. Paul’s Lowertown neighborhood to Woodbury. But Lake Elmo Council Member Anne Smith mentioned at last week’s meeting that her city remains in the running to become the terminus for the line. That could bring waves of commuters into town off Interstate 94.
A council divided on other issues is united in wanting that, she said, yielding major new commercial development and the tax proceeds that would mean. And that, in turn, could influence the future shape of the city — not to mention a potential stop further west.
“If Gateway puts us as a stop on the map,” Council Member Julie Fliflet told colleagues last month, “that area needs to have special consideration as to what makes sense to put there. It might mean high density development goes there, and that then opens up a whole lot of land in another area.
“We just want time to be able to plan,” she added, thus the moratorium on growth. “Once you put something in, it’s a forever decision.”
Andy Gitzlaff, project manager for the Gold Line, said that planners are weighing whether to install two stations toward the end of the line, one north of the freeway and one south.
“Both cities could have one in that area,” he said, “and in Woodbury there’s a desire to shift theirs more to the west, more central to their existing development, and that would make station spacing better.”
The Metropolitan Council has agreed to throttle back Lake Elmo’s growth expectations to a population of 18,200 by 2040, up from closer to 8,000 today. That compares to a previous mandate of 24,000 by 2030, or 10 years sooner.
Combined with the possibility of bunching the growth that occurs into high-density nodes along the freeway, the changes call for much thought about what it implies for a community famed for its anti-sprawl resistance to conventional suburban development.
On Tuesday, the City Council voted 3-2 to slap a 12-month moratorium on growth.
The ban doesn’t cover everything: it grandfathers in a large number of housing units previously approved, plus a senior housing project that has recently been proposed. And it doesn’t mean to block commercial development the council deems beneficial.
Even so, Mayor Mike Pearson warned that it could scare away the types of commercial development that the council favors.
“It’s almost as if we’re trying to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory here,” he said. “If we had a corporate headquarters proposed [in areas affected by the ban] would we not like to get that? They will not even bother knockin’ at our door. They will go elsewhere.”
But Fliflet countered that it’s “just an interim ordinance, a chance to take a breath. Within a short period of time [last year, under a previous council two of whose members were ousted in November] an awful lot of housing units were approved, more than I think I could ever have fathomed,” she said. “We need to take a step back and reassess.”
During a study to take place over the coming year, she said, it will be important to ask, now that growth mandates have loosened, and with the Gold Line’s potential impact, “have we already hit [the Met Council’s] population target for 2040?”
The action in Lake Elmo comes as East Metro Strong, a three-county effort to promote development in St. Paul and eastern suburbs, seeks to step up pressure to add transit as a development magnet in that area.
After an effort last session to lure $3 million out of legislators for the Gold Line failed, Will Schroeer, the group’s executive director, addressed the Washington County board to promote the Gold Line and other transitways.
“We are at pains to emphasize that it’s not transit for transit’s sake, it’s transit as a catalyst for more and better economic development,” he said last week.
The east is projected to grow faster than Hennepin County in coming decades, he said, “but if we don’t plan well for it, it may not come,” even though the east’s Green Line has been “even more successful over the same period as the Blue Line was at the same stage.”
East Metro Strong, he said, has offered to help places needing it, notably Lake Elmo itself.
“Lake Elmo has been a little bit late to planning” that would take advantage of the Gold Line, he said, and “asked us for help to catch. We spent money to help Lake Elmo catch up. Lake Elmo enjoyed that and has asked for follow up to that and we are considering that right now.”