A new attitude

Lake Elmo officials welcoming new development to city

LE Section 34 mapLAKE ELMO — In less than a year, Lake Elmo has become the place to be for developers.

A city where officials once fought regional planners over how much and quickly the city should grow and earned a reputation for being difficult to work with will see work start this month on a new Lennar housing develop along the Interstate 94 corridor west of Keats Avenue.

And city officials say they have heard talk of developers interested in bringing more business and retail development along the I-94 corridor as land becomes available.
“The development community is as excited about Lake Elmo as it was about Woodbury,” said City Administrator Dean Zuleger. “We’re about 25 minutes from downtown Minneapolis. The I-94 corridor has been of interest to developers because of the transportation infrastructure.”

Lennar was interested enough to bring a plan for single- and multi-family housing that will be built over six years between Keats Avenue and just east of Eagle Point Boulevard. Lennar also agreed with the city’s insistence that the developer pay to install street and utility infrastructure at the site.

“That’s what the council desired,” said Councilman Wally Nelson. “The council wanted that because we wanted to limit taxpayer risk.”

“If we let them (Lennar) do what they do best, they can shoulder the burden” added Mayor Mike Pearson.

Zuleger said a contractor should start site preparation and grading in streets shortly. “That work will happen this fall,” he added.

Construction of homes in the new development, expected to be valued at $260,000 to $400,000, would start next spring, with Lennar working east to west, according to Zuleger. He added that potential buyers can select from more than 80 different exterior designs.

“It won’t have a tract housing look,” he said.

Pearson and Zuleger said the city council and planning commission took steps to ensure the new project blends with existing neighborhoods in that area. Lennar will buffer the development from the nearby Stonegate neighborhood and Zuleger said the development’s main road, Fifth Street, will have a parkway design.

“The buffering and setback were the most specific,” Pearson said.

Zuleger also said the Lennar project would tie the new area in with four local parks, including Washington County’s Lake Elmo Park Reserve, and the city’s trail system.
“That was some nice master planning by our planning staff,” he said.

So, why did Lennar decided to build in Lake Elmo? Zuleger cites two reasons: approval of the city’s comprehensive plan and the Metropolitan Council recognizing that the city would not meet long-range growth goals when the last recession slowed growth.
Other developers are finding the city’s Old Village area another attractive location, city officials said. There is a concept plan for a 125-unit planned unit development in that area, Zuleger said.

“We’re meeting, on average, with two developers per week and there is a lot of interest in the Old Village,” he added.

What’s the attraction of Lake Elmo’s Old Village?

“It’s the classic downtown,” Zuleger said. “We don’t have to recreate something.”
“Our businesses could use a little more help down there,” Pearson added. “These rooftops will help.”

Others beside developers have taken note of Lake Elmo’s attitude change about development. Moody’s Investors Service recently gave the city’s 2013A series general obligation bonds a Aa2 rating, citing the city’s affluent tax base, favorable location in the metro area and healthy general fund reserves.

Several Lake Elmo business owners signed a May 25 letter to the council praising city staff and the council for what the letter signers called a new atmosphere.

“Since the start of the new year we have seen a major change in our town,” they write. “A change for the better. People who go to city hall and are greeted with smiles and ‘how (sic) can I help you.’ Staff that wants to help you with your projects instead of shut you down before you get started.

“This council and this staff are a breath of fresh air over the past decades,” the letter continues. “We finally have reason to believe that our city is doing something to better our city.”

Pearson, Nelson and Zuleger all stress the city will cautiously approach new development with the goal of maintaining the city’s open space feel.

“We’re being picky. We’ve had some folks come in with something that we said is not Lake Elmo. They haven’t come back,” Zuleger said.

“The backbone is in place,” Nelson said. “At the council level, we’ve been creating rules. Everybody knows what the rules are. They know that our expectations are high. I think what happened is that the councils over the years have listened to citizens about how they want growth.”

“We’re ready to listen and see what you have to offer,” Pearson added. “I feel confident in our staff. Our administrator has been through this experience in his last community and knows what to expect.”

Pearson said Lake Elmo residents need to understand their city is growing out of its agricultural roots.

“I think we’ve been very good in the past at saying what we don’t want to be,” he said. “We want quality development, a vibrant downtown that’s our jobs corridor. Are we a farming community? No, we’re not.”

But Pearson and Nelson stress the city will retain its open space.
“There certainly will be elbow room,” the mayor said. “Those spaces will be desirable.”

“The open space community we cherish is still viable,” Nelson added. “We’re meeting that fine balance. I think there’s a happy medium there.”

Contact Erik Sandin at erik.sandin@ecm-inc.com

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