When you get off Interstate 494 in Woodbury at Tamarack Road, you start to see turn lanes to nowhere.
A massive, heavily-wooded parcel sits with stubs of roads leading into it — but nothing developing on it.
It’s the kind of thing that has the city edgy, and wishing for action.
With nearly 1,000 vacant acres awaiting commercial development, Woodbury is considering taking aggressive steps to get prime sites ready for the private market.
Amid mild questioning over whether that’s the city’s proper role, officials say they are keying in on parcels such as the one at Tamarack, long empty partly because too many environmental questions surround it.
“One thing commercial developers look for is a clear path from A to B,” senior planner Eric Searles told members of the city’s Economic Development Commission during a meeting late in May. “How quickly can they move through the process?”
Added Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens: “This is often among the top one to three parcels in town for businesses, when we meet with them. But when we talk about barriers that exist, it’s too long, too unpredictable in timing, to make that decision. So to the extent that we can get it more development-ready, that’s one of our more desirable sites right now.”
Woods and wetlands
The city’s eagerness to prime the pump comes as population growth threatens to slow after a period in which Woodbury was one of the metro area’s biggest markets for new housing.
Sites full of woods and wetlands can be magnificent for corporate headquarters and office buildings, offering great views and the potential for walking trails and the like, officials point out. So the potential rewards are high.
But those sites also present several regulatory hurdles.
The so-called Parcel D, a piece of land east of 494 and south of Tamarack Road, should have a road from Tamarack to Bielenberg Drive, right at the aptly named Nature Path.
Problem is, there’s a lot of nature in the way, with potential wetlands impacts involving two state agencies — the departments of Natural Resources and Transportation — and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Ownership in the hands of a “large number of banks [adds] to the complexity of the issues,” according to city documents.
City commissioners wondered whether or how the city should be reimbursed for spending up to tens of thousands of dollars to help smooth the way for a piece of land to pass from one set of private owners to another. Or are there more indirect payoffs?
“The value for us is not primarily monetary,” Searles said. “To get a 75,000-square-foot or larger office building, the value is job creation. You could also do an analysis for tax value: You’re looking at probably $10 million to $15 million in value, and so some tax yield, but that’s not the reason to do it. It’s to unlock the potential.”
The mayor added: “Jobs mean buyers of homes, users of services.”
Across the city, “fifty parcels comprised of a cumulative 938.75 acres are identified as vacant and twenty-seven parcels comprised of a cumulative 68.82 acres are identified as vacant with approved site plans,” according to a memo to commissioners from Karl Batalden, Woodbury’s housing and economic development coordinator, and Janelle Schmitz, assistant community development director.
Another target area with plenty of environmental issues is the so-called Medical Campus area, west of 494 and south of Valley Creek Road
In such cases, officials say, the city simply can’t give prospective buyers a timeline as to when a transaction could be accomplished. Too many outside players are involved.
What it can do is to hire consultants and try to iron out issues and reduce uncertainty.
Noting that empty parcels in prime areas can be seen as a “drag on the community,” commissioners seemed inclined to support the effort. They were amused though to hear that the Army Corps is involved on the theory that some sites have “navigable waters.”
Searles explained: “If you place a twig in the water, it can flow to a river controlled by the Army Corps. Once that’s done it’s challenging to reverse that, so we will participate in their regulatory environment.”