I spotted this headline in the Sunday, Jan. 19, Sunday Star Tribune: “Vadnais Heights’ development tactic: Ask the neighbors.”

I was taken aback. Ask the neighbors, really? A city government listening to residents, not developers? It’s true.

Officials in Vadnais Heights, a St. Paul suburb west of White Bear Lake, had big plans for an apartment complex on city-owned land adjoining Lake Vadnais. Neighbors said no and brought out the tar and feathers.

War seemed imminent, but in a turnabout, the city dropped the plans, gave back $1 million in grant funding it had secured to clean up the site and went back to residents to ask what they wanted. The answer was a community gathering place, possibly a brew pub — which may happen, as the city is marketing the idea to developers.


Credit Vadnais Heights Mayor Heidi Gunderson with the initiative. Said Gunderson, quoting from the Star Tribune article: “Change is really hard in communities like ours. People have a strong attachment to the feel of their community. That is where change becomes really difficult.”

Mayor Gunderson is correct. It’s not just Vadnais Heights. Other suburbs are coming under pressure from developers to replace single-family homes in neighborhoods with taller, denser mixed-use complexes. Minneapolis just went through an agonizing and highly controversial revision of its 2040 plan that will now allow duplex and triplex housing throughout the city.

Density is the new mantra. Say goodbye to the tidy, 1920s bungalows of fond memory in south Minneapolis.

I recall a few years ago, the mavens of asphalt and concrete at the Scott County Highway Department along with the ancien regime at City Hall and a consultant concocted a plan to reroute Highway 21 south of downtown through the Pleasant Street neighborhood and extend Arcadia south across the wetlands to a connection with Highway 13 somewhere near Franklin Trail.

It would have wiped out the oldest neighborhood in Prior Lake and several homes going back to the turn of 20th century. There would have been no Pleasant Street Art Walk.

There was no neighborhood or public consultation up front. It came as a surprise. Three years of desultory conflict followed. It took an election and a regime change at City Hall, but finally the scheme died.

Next summer a rebuilt Highway 21 with intersection improvements and a roundabout at Highway 13 will be complete. Persistence pays, but it took public participation, an open process and project leadership to make it work.

Vigilance and skepticism are required when a developer comes calling.

A proposed subdivision on the west side of Spring Lake drew criticism at a recent Prior Lake Planning Commission meeting. According to the Jan. 18 Prior Lake American, a developer, Winkler Land Company, wants to put up 101 McMansions on 65 acres of fragile land with lot prices ranging from $400,000 to $600,000.

Winkler’s claimed savings and benefits from the planned development met skepticism from Commission Chairman Bryan Fleming and neighbors who attended the meeting.

Spring Lake has serious problems. Mercury and phosphorus pollution and algae blooms put it on the state’s list of impaired waters, and although it’s making progress thanks to a treatment program, the addition of 101 homes and their associated environmental pressures won’t do it much good.

These homes could bring with them upwards of 200 automobiles, several hundred residents and chemical-laden runoff from lawn fertilizers and street salt, not to mention damage to indigenous wildlife habitat.

Worse, the developer’s proposal suggests it may have to dredge a shallow, adjoining wetland to accommodate additional dock space and boats if the low-density zoning remains in effect. Sailboats would be very nice, but Spring Lake doesn’t need more wake-churning, high-horsepower monsters eroding its shoreline.

If the developer comes back, it should bring a full environmental impact assessment and mitigation plan. Failing that, the proposal and the project should go away.

Elsewhere, things are churning downtown — and that’s all to the good. Developer Beard Group wants to bring a multi-story apartment and retail development project to the block on Main Avenue between Pleasant and Colorado Streets.

What’s now a large, empty parking lot, the current V.F.W. building and Sebastian Automotive would be replaced by a mix of retail and residential space with underground parking. The V.F.W. would get a much-needed new building that would bring additional meeting, recreational and dining space to downtown.

Before the V.F.W. decades ago, the building hosted Prior Lake’s first and only movie theater.

The project likely won’t break ground until 2021, and in between there’s much planning to be done: Traffic and traffic flow on Pleasant and Colorado Streets are important issues, along with the design and height of the new building and green space and a buffer between the new building and the existing homes on Pleasant Street.

Like the Highway 21 project, this will have a huge impact on downtown and adjoining neighborhoods and, like the Highway 21 project, will need public participation. City leadership needs to make sure that community input gets top priority. This is a partnership.

Unlike the first Highway 21 debacle, there should be no surprises.

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and is the author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com.


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