A proposal for a major university expansion in the north metro got an icy airing Monday night before the City Council in Arden Hills.

The University of Northwestern-St. Paul wants to buy and remodel 165,000 square feet of empty office space in the Ramsey County suburb.

But a private Christian campus is not the kind of uber-desirable high-tech corporate tenant that vacated that space when Smiths Medical moved to the west metro.

“We’ve been told that the Smiths site is nice because it has the lab space that could attract the high-paying jobs we want,” said Council Member Dave McClung. “I want to leave the building open for commercial development — another medical firm, perhaps.”

Left unspoken during Monday night’s workshop was whether the building would come off the tax rolls in the hands of a religious institution.

But Northwestern President Alan Cureton said in an interview that that could be negotiated. “We want to be good neighbors,” he said.

The school’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics campus would start with a combined faculty and staff of 43 jobs on 14 acres.

That’s a small fraction of the several hundred employed by Smiths Medical.

That firm’s 2014 announcement that it was leaving for Plymouth startled many civic leaders in the east and fed a sense that prosperity was tilting westward.

Arden Hills has a role in the proposed Northwestern expansion because the old Smiths site isn’t zoned for educational institutions.

“Changing zoning is a big deal,” warned Council Member Fran Holmes.

Cureton and other university officials said that a STEM campus would promote economic development.

The session was a preface to the council’s considering its next steps with TCAAP, the Army Ammunition site megaproject being proposed for the same community.