‘Village’ to get master coordinator



While working to revise Lake Elmo’s comprehensive plan a few months ago, the City Council made several important decisions regarding the Old Village or downtown area near the intersection of Highway 5 and Lake Elmo Avenue.

In an effort to signify the marriage of planned innovation with careful preservation for the development of the Old Village, one of the council’s decisions was to eventually begin referring to the area as simply The Village.

However, before any changes in labeling can occur, the city intends to hire someone to fill a position that itself has changed names several times during the past year; from "master developer" to "master planner" to its latest incarnation as "master coordinator." To that end, the council granted City Administrator Martin Rafferty and other city staff the authority to do just that at its July 5 meeting, most likely from one of two prime candidates: Bob Engstrom of Engstrom Companies or Dewey Thorbeck of Thorbeck Architects.

And with the final expiration of the moratorium on development in the Old Village set for Oct. 5, time is of the essence.

"A lot of work has been done, a lot of the independent pieces," Rafferty said. "Now it’s time to tie it all together into a plan that works and that’s a public and private partnership."

Rafferty asserted that the best development plans incorporate both public and private interests and, in the case of the Old Village, a large percentage of those private interests come from four different landowners. The city hopes those property owners can cooperate to develop an overall plan for what is to be The Village, with the mediation assistance of a master coordinator.

According to City Planner Chuck Dillerud, those parties include three development companies, Heritage Development, Bruggeman Homes and Lynskey Companies, as well as the largest property owner in the Old Village, the Schiltgen family, represented by a conglomerate of three other groups: Plum Investment Co., Bancor Group and Traditions Development.

In November and December of 2004, the City Council (presided over by then Mayor Lee Hunt) held several workshops where they ultimately decided to ask these four property owners to meet and discuss the future of the Old Village, in the hopes that they could develop a clear plan among themselves. According to Rafferty, those meetings did not produce an integrated common vision, but each developer has come up with strong ideas separately.

"We don’t want it to look like four separate developments," Rafferty said. "Our consultant would meet with the four developers, get their marketplace perspective and finalize an overall plan that works based on the foundation of what the city would like to see and what’s possible from a market-driven perspective."

The resolution of the city’s dispute with the Metropolitan Council over its comp plan through 2030 is nearing realization, with an initial staff rejection and missed deadline in June followed by a further compromise of more houses and accelerated sewer hook-ups made by the city.

The Old Village component of that plan now includes such possible amenities as a community center-type facility, a walk-able community including housing for people with disabilities, the potential for senior housing of some kind and (as required by the Met Council) metropolitan sanitary sewer and as many as 600 new housing units — an increase from the originally planned 440.

At the July 5 meeting, the council mentioned both Engstrom and Thorbeck as good candidates for the coordinator position before voting unanimously to allow Rafferty and city staff to choose between them (or a possible third interested party). Rafferty confirmed that he expected to have the position filled very soon, "within the coming weeks."

"I’m confident that staff understands what our needs are and that staff will make a good choice," Mayor Dean Johnston said of the decision.

Up for the job

Both Engstrom and Dewey Thorbeck have a history with Lake Elmo, having each studied or developed numerous areas of the city. In the case of Thorbeck, his company conducted a study focused on Lake Elmo Avenue beginning in 2000. That effort expanded to a larger examination of aesthetics and design ideas for the Old Village area in 2003, working closely with city officials and community groups. Thorbeck said he has been contacted by the city and is prepared to start work immediately if selected in order to meet the Oct. 5 deadline for the moratorium.

"I have a very strong interest in the rural issues (in Lake Elmo)," said Thorbeck, who is also the director of rural design at the University of Minnesota. "The Old Village is so unique. There are suburban areas all over the metro that would just die to have it. ... We don’t want to screw up what’s good there."

Thorbeck added that some of his ideas from two years ago would necessarily be altered by some of the Met Council requirements like sanitary sewer (he had intended for constructed wetlands to handle water services for new housing). But both he and Engstrom emphasized that the overall goals for the Old Village are the same, regardless of the changes. Engstrom is a longtime Lake Elmo developer who preferred not to discuss the potential of his hiring for the coordinator position, though he did confirm his interest.

"I would put together a team and we would try to bring together all of the different parties into something that was cohesive and satisfied a lot of the goals of the Old Village," Engstrom said. "I have a certain sentimental attachment to Lake Elmo so, if there’s a way that I can help bring (a plan) to fruition, it’s tempting."

In their instruction to Rafferty, the City Council made it clear that, whatever the decision, they were eager to move quickly toward achieving a partnership among the landowners. Johnston, who has helped introduce proposals for a possible family center as well as spearheading a recent contract with the Ramsey Center for the Arts to utilize a city-owned house in the Old Village, added that it would take the input of all interested Lake Elmo residents to find the best compromise.

"I can’t be the only one with good ideas," he said. "We haven’t formally sat down and drawn out the thoughts of the entire council or community in terms of what kinds of amenities we want in our downtown."

Such a step may yet be needed before Lake Elmo’s downtown begins to be known as simply The Village.

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