Arden Hills council passes interim zoning ordinance


The University of Northwestern, located in Arden Hills, is considering a future expansion. One site the Christian college has its eye on is the vacated Smiths Medical facility, also located in Arden Hills. Northwestern’s president Alan Cureton would like to see students walking toward Smiths’ doors, however, the Arden Hills City Council is not so sure about rezoning the site to accommodate the college.

Smiths Medical in Arden Hills is a vacant 165,000 square-foot facility. While the University of Northwestern would like to buy and use the facility, city officials are hesitant

University of Northwestern’s expansion into Smiths Medical halted for now 

A few weeks after the Arden Hills City Council members learned that the University of Northwestern was eyeing a large, vacant office facility in the suburb, they passed an interim ordinance that temporarily prohibits the rezoning of buildings for educational purposes in certain Arden Hills zones.

During a Sept. 19 council work session, Northwestern’s president Alan Cureton told city officials that the private, Christian university would like to expand, ideally using the former Smiths Medical facility at 1265 Grey Fox Road, just up the street from the school’s Arden Hills campus.

Cureton explained that Northwestern has seen a spike in students interested in majoring in science, technology, engineering and math, and the administration would like to utilize the former medical device facility, which Cureton said has “state-of-the-art labs,” for the school’s growing STEM programs.

During the meeting, however, council members were not keen on the idea of the site being rezoned for educational purposes, which might mean fewer jobs and property-tax dollars coming from the 165,000 square-foot complex. 

“The zoning does not permit an educational use there,” Arden Hills Mayor David Grant said in an interview with the Bulletin, and specified in regards to rezoning the Smiths Medical complex, “I would characterize this as: ‘No interest on behalf of the city.’”

What appeared before the council members at their Oct. 10 meeting was a consent agenda item that contained a motion to approve an interim ordinance, which was essentially a moratorium that would temporarily prohibit land use applications and reviews for higher education uses in residential, business, industrial and other zones.

However, council member Jonathan Wicklund requested to pull the item from the consent agenda at the meeting so city officials could discuss it.

 

Reason for the ordinance

“The intent of the ordinance is to allow the city time to complete an in-depth comprehensive study on our education uses in residential, business and industrial zones outside your typical campus setting for higher education uses,” senior planner Matthew Bachler said, noting that it could take between six months to a year for the city complete such a study, which would be conducted by outside consultants.

According to Bachler, the temporary ordinance allows city staff and the council to wave applications from a school such as Northwestern.

When Wicklund asked about the estimated cost of the study, Bachler said staff had not yet explored the cost, but would bring forward a dollar amount when available.

Bachler also said such moratoriums are relatively rare, explaining the last time Arden Hills saw such an action was in 2008 or 2009.

Grant assured Wicklund, however, that “it’s not unprecedented.”

 

Halting the process

According to Cureton, Northwestern has already entered into a letter of agreement with Smiths Medical.

“We’ve agreed on a price,” Cureton said, not revealing the dollar amount, as the entire transaction is dependent upon the rezoning of the land and is currently zoned as I-Flex.

According to Ramsey County tax records, the assessed value of the building, which was built in 1985, and land is $10,708,100, and Smiths Medical’s overall property-tax bill was $407,152 in 2016. 

Education buildings are exempt from property taxes, so if the complex becomes part of the university, it will no longer be assessed property taxes.

Wicklund asked if the interim ordinance would halt Northwestern’s process of negotiations.

Arden Hills city attorney Joel Jamnik said it will halt all applications that are filed after the ordinance was passed. He said completed applications that have already been submitted still need to be considered. 

According to Bachler, the city received Northwestern’s rezoning application for the Smiths Medical building on Oct. 3. He said staff hadn’t yet determined whether it was complete.

“In the optics of what’s happening right now, my preference would be to table the discussion and evaluate the application before we make a decision,” Wicklund said. 

“This seems to undercut a process that was started several weeks ago.”

However, Wicklund’s caution on the matter was not reciprocated by Grant and the other council members, who approved the interim ordinance on a 4-1 vote.

 

Chamber’s position

The St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce announced last week that it hopes the rezoning request will ultimately be approved.

“The Saint Paul Area Chamber of Commerce strongly supports the University of Northwestern’s complete application for a zoning code amendment and conditional use permit, allowing them to purchase the Smiths Medical building for use as classrooms, administrative offices, laboratory space, and incubator space,” said Marie Ellis, the Chamber’s director of public affairs and legal counsel, in a statement. 

In a phone interview, Ellis explained that the possibility of providing “incubator space” — space the university plans to rent out to small businesses and start-up companies — could encourage partnership opportunities and benefit Arden Hills as successful start-ups continue to do business and grow in the suburb.

Ellis added that the Chamber conducted a Business Retention and Expansion Study in Arden Hills and looked at the city’s comprehensive plan. Ellis said the study results encourage working toward cooperation and partnership between Arden Hills businesses and educational institutions. 

“This would be a great way for them to do that,” Ellis said. 

While conducting the study, the Chamber discovered that Arden Hills business owners have a lot of concerns regarding traffic congestion, especially around rush hour.

“By putting some higher-ed use in this area, it could alleviate some of those traffic issues,” Ellis said. “Classes aren’t generally at peak rush hour times.”

 

‘Undercut a process?’

Meanwhile at the meeting, Grant and the other council members sharply disagreed with Wicklund’s suggestion that approving the interim ordinance would undercut Northwestern’s rezoning application.

“Undercut a process?” council member Brenda Holden said. “Do you know that we spend time planning and planning and planning what we want in our city, where we want it, where we want the roads laid out? ... I’m insulted that just because [the college and Smiths Medical] have a plan now, I’m supposed to throw out all the plans the city has made. Where’s the respect for the plans we’ve been working on?”

Holden continued, noting that Northwestern currently is not permitted to occupy the former Smiths Medical facility under the I-Flex zoning. “It’s not allowed in that area so I don’t know what the application does anyway. ... For me, my planning is just as important as their planning, and I’ve been doing it for many, many years; the city’s been doing it for many, many years.”

Just what plans the city does have for the vacant site were not divulged, but the majority of the council said the plan is to keep the property zoned the way it is: for business. 

“I believe that it’s important that we take a look at that particular zone. ... It has been a business incubator, it has done extremely well,” Grant said. “To do a moratorium and a study is in the city’s best interest. That’s my position.”

 

Impacts of changing zoning 

Council member Dave McClung said the city needed to study the current zone to make a determination on the possible impacts of making a change. 

“Let’s take the time,” he said. “Let’s look at the issue across the entire city, across all of our zoning codes and then be done with it.”

Council member Fran Holmes also weighed in. 

“I would challenge the comment that the optics look bad,” she said. “I think the whole idea that we’re doing the moratorium is in response to this request of the University of Northwestern, and it’s important that we do it right. We want to do it right for the university,” she continued, “I don’t think it’s a negative response to the application of the University of Northwestern; I think it’s a positive response.”

Nearing the end of the discussion, an unidentified representative for the University of Northwestern requested to add to the conversation. 

“Would you accept a comment on behalf of the University of Northwestern?” he said.

“No, I would not,” Grant replied, also turning down a request from a resident who asked to speak. “These are council discussions and council decisions.”

“It just seems like a really big decision for the city and the residents,” a resident was heard commenting in the otherwise quiet chambers.  

 

Jesse Poole can be reached at jpoole@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7815.

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