Plans are gelling for the rebirth of the moribund Brookdale Center site.

The Brooklyn Center Planning Commission voted unanimously Thursday to approve plans for an open town center-style retail development. The proposed design will go to the City Council for possible approval May 9.

The proposal for the Shingle Creek Crossing, as the development would be known, calls for it to be anchored by a nearly 182,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Super Center, with four smaller "junior" anchors, four restaurants and eight other buildings that would house dozens of smaller retail spaces ranging in size from 7,000 to 14,000 square feet. Sears, which is still open, would remain in place. So would the food court and the former Barnes and Noble space, both now closed.

Aside from Wal-Mart, tenants for the other spots still have to be lined up.

If the council approves the design, demolition of much of the existing complex could begin next month and construction could start by late summer.

Still, timelines are fluid. A preliminary plan had been approved in March, but it was revised after Gatlin Development Co., which bought most of the Brookdale site last fall, negotiated the purchase of another parcel now occupied by a Midas muffler shop.

Different from 'dale' model

Unlike the "-dale" model of a shopping center under a roof, the proposed development would be open at its center, with parking and landscaping at its middle, including a partially exposed Shingle Creek, which has run through a culvert under the parking lot for the past half decade. It would look less like the old Brookdale Center and more like the Shoppes at Arbor Lake in Maple Grove. The number and specific configuration of the supporting retail shops will depend on which businesses want to locate there.

The big question, said Jim McComb, a veteran observer of the Twin Cities retail market, is whether developers can assemble a combination of businesses to appeal to a customer base that has changed since Brookdale went in there in 1962.

During the time that Brookdale was languishing, other retail centers have flourished, he noted, such as the Shoppes at Arbor Lakes, only about 7 miles west on Interstate 94.

A smaller trade area now

Brookdale is "dealing with a much smaller trade area now than the center had before," said McComb, who is president of the Minneapolis real estate and retail consulting company, the McComb Group. "The challenge for the developers in Brookdale is, what are the stores that would see an opportunity to be at the Brookdale site that don't already have a location that serves that area?"

In addition, complementary stores would have to stock items that are unavailable at Wal-Mart, or that are appreciably better or cheaper than at the retail giant.

But Gary Eitel, Brooklyn Center's economic development director, espouses the city's view that development at Shingle Creek Crossing is only the start of a renaissance for the area in the wedge between I-94 and Hwy. 100, one that could include life-cycle housing for longtime residents ready to downsize but who want to stay in the city, and a range of other redevelopment in adjacent empty or underutilized parcels.

"How I've explained it over my career is, it's like popcorn popping," he said. "It takes a while for the oil to get hot enough and for the kernels to get just ready, but when it is, it's explosive. You get to that point then it's going to be a scramble. With that scramble comes the jobs, comes the commerce and it builds. That's the energy that's exciting from a community development perspective."

Mayor Tim Willson noted that the city has done a lot in the background to position itself to be ready for redevelopment, at Brookdale and elsewhere. Gatlin will benefit from about $4.4 million in tax increment financing and loans that will be forgiven if the developer completes its end of the bargain according to the city's timeline requirements.

Willson also predicted success based partly on the thought that $4-a-gallon gas will continue to spark interest in the city.

"We saw last time a lot more interest in properties in Brooklyn Center, because it's closer to the downtowns, and not as far to drive not only for biz but for industry as well," he said. "We expect that to happen again. I don't think gas prices are going to go down very soon."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409