Lake Elmo taps Engstrom for Old Village planning

After listening to presentations from two candidates for the Old Village master coordinator position on Aug. 3, the Lake Elmo City Council settled on Bob Engstrom and Robert Engstrom Companies to lead the impending development projects in the city’s historic downtown area.

The decision fell to four of the council members to make (Mayor Dean Johnston was absent from the 6 p.m. special meeting) and their choice was between Engstrom and architect Dewey Thorbeck of Thorbeck Architects. The council split its vote twice before the final tally on hiring Engstrom went 3-1 in his favor.

“I think that Bob has demonstrated ... a personal commitment to Lake Elmo,” Council member Steve DeLapp said following the decision. “(He has) the ability to get the right people involved and a bit greater hands-on experience in our city dealing with existing property owners, new property owners and marketing conditions.”

According to City Planner Chuck Dillerud, the master coordinator will have three major tasks to complete between now and Oct. 5 (the date by which the city’s moratorium on development in the Old Village expires permanently).

The first of these will be to help organize and guide cooperation between the four entities which own all of the land in the downtown area; the second will be to incorporate the Metropolitan Council Old Village requirements and some recent City Council initiatives (such as a community center); and lastly, the coordinator must address the transfer of development rights for the new “Village” (as the city intends to rename it).

In addition, Dillerud said, Engstrom will need to meet with the City Council in “workshop-style” meetings to receive input on the downtown development.

“We have to recognize that the plan we’re working with today was not (created) by this council,” he said of the Old Village plan first presented to the council in early-2004 (but tabled to await the results of four comprehensive water and traffic studies).

The four property owners for the Old Village area are Heritage Development, Bruggeman Homes, Lynskey Companies and a triumvirate (Plum Investment Co., Bancor Group and Traditions Development) representing the largest landowner, the Schiltgen family.

The City Council had hoped that these property owners could work together cooperatively on the Old Village Plan, effectively negating any need for a coordinator position. When that partnership didn’t materialize, the council voted to go ahead with a coordinator search last month.

However, in a somewhat sudden about-face, the four landowners have recently congregated to discuss hiring their own “master planner” for leading the development on their properties. Dillerud told the council of the turn of events at its July 26 meeting and, although he could not mention the name of the firm the collaborators were considering (pending their companies’ final approval), he did offer his confidence that their candidate was fully qualified.

“I consider this firm to be on equal footing with the ones we’re talking to,” Dillerud said. “This is exactly what we wanted them to do all along.”

The city decided to continue with its search for it’s own coordinator, however, and, during their interviews, both Engstrom and Thorbeck reacted positively to the possibility of working closely with one person as opposed to four independent groups.

At the Aug. 3 special council meeting, the discussion following those interviews was a lengthy and thorough evaluation of the candidates’ strengths. The first motion, made by Rita Conlin, was to hire Thorbeck. Liz Johnson, who had worked closely with the architect on a comprehensive study of the Old Village when she was a Planning Commission member, seconded.

“I think he has a unique understanding of rural,” Johnson said following the meeting. “We are working with landowners and developers and this is a serous, heart-wrenching thing for some of these individuals. So you need somebody who has a skill in bringing them all to the same page.”

Nevertheless, Johnson felt comfortable with Engstrom in the position as wellk, and, after Conlin’s motion failed with a 2-2 split, Johnson voted with Anne Smith and DeLapp for an Engstrom nomination.

Although Engstrom’s schedule did not permit him to be reached in time for this story, Thorbeck spoke optimistically of the Old Village’s future.

“I hope that everybody, the city and the developers, can all work off a common vision ... between public and private aspects to do something really outstanding.”

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