The Curse on the Cubbies has finally lifted. Next comes White Bear Lake.
The major lakefront transformation that city has dreamed of since at least the 1980s appears close to locking its last major piece in place: A restaurant overlooking the city’s marina, in a prominent space that has long sat empty.
But the City Council is hardly in a celebratory mood. Council members are not really getting what they wanted, and they’re being asked to help furnish the unfinished space with a low-interest $150,000 loan.
After seeking far and wide, developers turned to the owners of the small restaurant next door, Acqua, who propose a Japanese sushi place — if they get some financial help. The upstairs would become a yoga studio.
But the city still hasn’t landed quite what it wanted, the breakfast/lunch/dinner/drinks venue that officials dreamed of. Grumbled City Council Member Dan Jones: “The developer was not in my opinion terribly favorable to having a restaurant there.”
That means still more ill feeling over a patch of land that’s the gateway to downtown, greeting everyone headed north into the busy town center on Hwy. 61.
“Why are we in this position?” said Council Member Bill Walsh. “This council is being asked to act like a bank and I’m not qualified to do that. We’re betting on, can it succeed or fail? This is uncomfortable.”
Mayor Jo Emerson, at a meeting to consider the terms of the deal late last month, responded that the previous City Council had created the conditions they’re now trying to deal with. “It’s not our council,” she said.
At issue is the historic Johnson Boat Works site, purchased by the city back in 1999 and a planning priority for many years before that. Today it’s a public-private partnership, with the private entities being the Lander Group and At Home Apartments.
For city officials, the vision for the site was always enticing. As a current online ad puts it for the Boatworks Commons apartment complex, which did go up there: “The lifestyle possibilities read like a dream: beautiful views of the lake from your living room; a stroll to grocery, services and restaurants; a rest in a sheltered public plaza; a beautiful bike ride to downtown.”
If it reads like a dream, the nearly 20-year struggle to develop the site was sometimes a nightmare. A major request in 2006 for Metropolitan Council subsidies got zeroed out in the end because the Met Council wasn’t convinced the city had actually landed a developer.
Boatworks Commons opened in 2015 with a public parking ramp, lakefront park and paths alongside the marina. But the quest for a signature, sit-down restaurant in a sunny two-story space high above the lake has been challenging.
The City Council has given its staff the go-ahead to craft a final deal for the sushi place, centered on the loan and other concessions. The deal has not been totally clinched, but the pieces seem in place.
After that it needs to succeed, which is also a concern.
City Planner Anne Kane was candid about a basic difference in views between city staffers and the developer, in terms of what happens if the $150,000 helps build out the space.
“Once established as a restaurant, if it should not succeed, the kitchen buildout should allow [the developer] to attract another one more easily,” she said. “The developer has a different perspective: If proven operators can’t make it work, there’s little chance to find a second one.”