Above: Before and after views of the site, seen from Lake Street just below the light rail station. Click here for the full size image.

One of the most ambitious neighborhood developments in the city, overhauling a grim corner of Lake Street at Hiawatha Avenue S., could break ground later this year.

Hennepin County officials were optimistic Thursday night about starting construction on the first phase of a multi-faceted vision for the intersection that could ultimately take many years to complete. The final product would include hundreds of new housing units, ample retail space, a new home for the Midtown Farmers Market and a county service center.

The project on the southwest quadrant of the intersection has additional significance because development has been lackluster around the light rail station, despite high hopes from the community. Aerial images show the station remains surrounded by more than 2,700 stalls of parking covering 18 football fields of space.

Ultimately it took the county's help to get a project off the ground. The county committed $54.5 million in November to acquire the 6.5-acre site from Minneapolis Public Schools and develop a service center and 406-space parking structure. Acquisition costs of about $9 million are ultimately expected to be recouped through land sales to a private developer.

The first phase is more modest than the grand vision for the site, illustrated in renderings Thursday night. It includes a hub for county health and human services -- part of a strategy to migrate the services from downtown -- 100 units of market rate housing, a new transit plaza, ground-level retail on Lake Street and a self-help bike repair shop.

Jack Borman with BKV Group, one facet of developer L&H Station Development, related the project to "what’s happening all over the country today, which is the development of nodal, mixed-use housing, transit and public civic space developments."

Michael Noonan, the county's real estate manager, said they hope to break ground on the first phase this summer. "Our goal would be to be open for business late 16, early 17," Noonan told residents packed into what is now an adult education center on the site.

While the first phase would bring retail vibrancy to a stretch of Lake Street now covered by a retaining wall, other components may take years to materialize. That includes a new plaza -- replete with an amphitheater in renderings -- to house the Midtown Farmers Market (pictured below).

Max Musicant, a consultant on the project, told the audience that plaza could ultimately take three to eight years to materialize. In the meantime, the market will operate in a parking lot slightly east of their current location.

Later phases include another 410 units of housing, intended to feature a mix of unit sizes and prices. When and whether they get built depends partly on the market, Noonan said.

"If the market stays robust like it is now, we’ll see great activity here," Noonan said. "But it is our goal to advance this development to fruition as quickly as we can.”

But he added that it also hinges on when Minneapolis Public Schools exits their building on the site, which houses their immigrant-focused adult basic education program. They are allowed to occupy the building for another three to eight years, after which it will be demolished to make way for housng and the adjacent plaza.

School officials said Thursday that they intend to move the adult education program to a new building near South High School, combining it with a program geared toward 18- to 21-year olds.

Below is the master plan for the site. Click here for full-size view: