After a two-hour discussion, the St. Paul City Council on Wednesday night approved plans to funnel $18.4 million from the city’s coffers into infrastructure improvements tied to a new Major League Soccer stadium expected to reshape the Midway neighborhood.
Minnesota United soccer club owners already agreed to finance the $150 million-plus stadium. But the city is on the hook for fresh investment in roadways, sidewalks and nearly a dozen other features at the long-stagnant site, roughly bordered by University and Snelling avenues and Interstate 94.
The city’s tab includes $3.1 million for storm sewers, $2 million for plazas around the stadium and more than $1 million apiece for utility relocation, lighting and a slew of other improvements. It also covers $1.5 million toward site cleanup plus $800,000 in soft costs, including a transportation study.
City council members approved the budget on a 5-2 vote.
St. Paul’s infrastructure buy-in is capped at $16.1 million – plus cleanup and soft costs – under the framework. Team owners would cover additional costs, and would pay for amenities that go beyond standard sidewalks and green spaces, for example.
The city will tap into proceeds from tax increment financing districts near the site and from the sale of the Penfield Apartments, the luxury downtown complex that the city listed earlier this year. It expects to seal the sale soon.
Documents outlining St. Paul’s stadium commitments were filed late last week, prompting concerns that the council was making a fast-tracked decision without adequate time to review the facts. But most on the council said they had been in close touch with city staff and consultants, and stood by the project.
City Council President Russ Stark noted that the upgrades line up with longstanding plans to dress up the Midway site, currently home to an old bus maintenance facility, a strip mall and expansive parking lots. City planners’ loose redevelopment ideas predate the stadium plan.
“While this public infrastructure is completely necessary for the stadium, it actually is quite consistent with the public infrastructure plan that’s been on the table for this site for many years,” Stark said. The city had envisioned a site overhaul anchored by at least one larger development project.
The stadium itself will sit on nearly 10 acres, replacing the former “bus barn” site. But proponents have zeroed in on broader redevelopment potential as a key selling point. Led by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, advocates say the facility would trigger a facelift on the 24.5 surrounding acres.
In a statement emailed Wednesday night, the mayor said the stadium “ushers in new possibilities for economic growth and development throughout the Midway and the region.”
Site plans unveiled last month show a 12-block grid that would transform an aging Midway Shopping Center and adjacent parking lots into an “urban village” with housing, parks and other amenities that would hug the stadium.
The 24.5 acres slated for redevelopment around the stadium are not included in the infrastructure plan greenlighted on Wednesday, save for a block-long section of Shields Avenue that would link Snelling Avenue on the west side to the soccer complex.
Still, New York-based RK Midway, owner of the surplus land, has been at the table during stadium talks and will factor significantly in the future facelift of the site.
For now, though, prospects for new housing, office and hospitality development remain murky. RK Midway’s Rick Birdoff has said Bloomington-based United Properties wants to build offices near the soccer site, but the developer – run by the Pohlad family, a stadium backer – has yet to firm up plans.
Tom Goldstein, a St. Paul resident and former city council candidate, said at Wednesday’s meeting that a lack of solid redevelopment proposals stirs doubt that the stadium can deliver the returns promised by project proponents.
Last week, Bill McGuire – the former UnitedHealth Group CEO leading the owner group — unveiled ambitious renderings depicting massive office and residential development nearby.
“You might as well have the Eiffel Tower and pyramids here because it’s just as likely that will be built,” Goldstein said. “There are no signed deals. There are no developers who have committed to build anything.”
Council member Rebecca Noecker endorsed the stadium plan, but said she plans to introduce a resolution in the coming weeks that would make sure the city does everything it can on the front end to maximize redevelopment alongside the stadium project.
Without other projects to complement the facility, she said, the city’s infrastructure investment won’t be worthwhile. In addition, Noecker said she would hold the city to its $18.4 million investment cap, even if a parking and transportation study at the site suggested more modifications.
Tabulating the overall payoff of the stadium project was a sticking point for both council members who voted down the infrastructure plan, Jane Prince and Dan Bostrom. In particular, Bostrom – whose East Side ward is often passed over by investors – encouraged the council to rethink its approach.
“It’s a great opportunity for this neighborhood, but there are a lot of other neighborhoods in town that need some help,” he said. “It just bothers me that we’re able to find $18 million for this, yet for some of the other neighborhood projects that we want, we can’t get it done. The money isn’t available.”
Prince asked the council to take another week to review project documents, but her proposal failed on a 5-2 vote.
Others on the council fired back at criticisms, touting the project as a can’t-miss opportunity to breathe new life into a part of the city ripe for renewal – one that sits along the Green Line and several bus lines, including the forthcoming A-Line bus rapid transit route.
“This vote is really about the future of St. Paul,” Council Member Chris Tolbert said, pointing to an increased tax base and opportunities for new businesses to crop up. “It’s a question of whether we want to be a world-class city or a sleepy suburb.”
In addition to the public infrastructure budget presented Wednesday, the City Council signed off on a general development agreement, an environmental project management plan and a framework for stadium use.
The council also approved a 52-year ground lease with the Metropolitan Council, owner of the “bus barn” site that would hold most of the stadium. The Met Council plans to lease the site to St. Paul, which would sublease it to the team to cover the entire rent, or $556,620 per year.
Now, the city will turn its focus to the 2016 legislative session, set to kick off next week. Lawmakers need to approve a property tax exemption for the stadium site, a development condition written into the agreements by McGuire’s owner group, which is also seeking a break on sales tax for construction materials and a liquor license.
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