Cities along Northstar corridor wait for development

Vacant land
Three hundred acres of vacant agricultural land sit to the south of the Northstar Station in Big Lake. The city of Big Lake hasn't yet received any applications for new developments around the station. This is also the case for the cities of Elk River, Coon Rapids, Anoka and Fridley.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

Minnesota's first commuter rail line has been up and running for three weeks now, but it has yet to spur any development along the route of the train.

Planners and community developers in the cities along the Northstar corridor are hopeful that will change, although that's not likely for at least another year.

They envision high-density areas with coffee shops, day care centers, dry cleaners, little restaurants, and condos, offices, apartments, and newspaper stands. But the reality is that it's going to take some time before any of these things begin to take hold around these transit stations.

The city of Big Lake hasn't received any applications for new developments around its station at the end of the line. Three hundred acres of vacant agricultural land are available just south of the station.

Katie Larsen, a senior planner with the city, said she received a lot of inquiries from developers last year, but the recession quickly slowed down that interest.

Larsen said the city is still talking to some developers, so they're drafting a master plan for transit-oriented development (TOD) for those 300 acres near the station.

Northstar commuter train
The sun rises on a Northstar commuter rail train.
MPR Photo/Jeff Jones

"It's been a good opportunity, at least from my perspective, from a planning perspective, that maybe this lull in the economy kind of allowed us to amp up our planning aspects of the TOD area," said Larsen. "So now we'll be ready and in place for when developers do come forward. We can sit down and show them a well-thought out, laid-out master plan of the area."

Larsen hopes the very first building that goes up will encourage more business. That's the same expectation other city officials along the Northstar corridor have for development.

The city of Fridley also has land, about 25 acres, near its station, for which city officials have high hopes. Scott Hickok, the city's community development director, said the site will be an important part of development around the Northstar Fridley station.

"We've got some very nice affordable residential within walking distance of the station site. That residential could see new life and activity in terms of reinvestment," said Hickok. "Some of it may have been waiting for the train to arrive to do some reinvestment."

Hickok said when commercial businesses do go up near the rail line, they'll have to have a market beyond Northstar commuters so they can succeed.

Space available
There's more space available for development on this land near the Big Lake Northstar station's park-and-ride lot facing Highway 10.
MPR Photo/Ambar Espinoza

In Coon Rapids, the station is located near a shopping mall, so Marc Nevinski, community development director, said retail development near the station will be a challenge.

"Housing development is probably a very likely use near our rail station," he said. "However, that market is obviously depressed right now and it's probably not something we are going to see any time soon."

Nevinski said he's seen no real interest to develop next to the rail station because of the economic slowdown.

That's also the case for the cities of Elk River and Anoka, where city planners are wrapping up studies and plans for what would work best around the stations.

Carolyn Braun, planning director for the city of Anoka, anticipates current small businesses around the area and new development along the corridor will complement the city's outdoor activities.

"Our station is located adjacent to the Rum River, so it will connect into our trail system that goes throughout our city and travels further. We will have a very good trail system that links into this, and so I expect it to be a lively place with a lot of pedestrian traffic," she said.

Although there's no development yet, a couple of these cities have already updated or are in the process of updating their zoning standards. They hope to use the land around stations in new, creative ways with a mix of commercial and housing opportunities.