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Pitch for Minnesota United stadium more than grounds

A rendering shows what the new Minnesota United soccer stadium in St. Paul could look like now that it has been officially named Allianz Field. It was announced Tuesday, July 25, 2017, that Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America will be the stadium’s official sponsor. (Courtesy of Minnesota United)

ST. PAUL — Fans and critics of the $200 million Major League Soccer stadium under construction in St. Paul's Midway neighborhood tend to share one mind when it comes to the surrounding Midway Shopping Center — it's due for a pedestrian-friendly upgrade.

Next week, the St. Paul City Council will be asked to OK multiple stages of improvements to the shopping center grounds, including a privately-maintained public park space called "The Great Lawn" that will border the future 19,400-seat stadium to be named Allianz Field.

Also on tap are three new city blocks, complete with curb, gutter and underground utilities, and a shared, underground stormwater system that city planners call precedent-setting.

If there's a potential catch, it's funding.

The infrastructure upgrades will draw from a combination of private and public funds, including the Minnesota United soccer team owners, public grants, city funds that had been budgeted more than a year ago, future stormwater assessments and new city money.

The goal is to inject more vibrancy and incentives for real estate investment in the business district, while connecting pedestrians, cyclists and light rail passengers to the future stadium.

"I think we're weeks away from beginning to see the steel and the tops of the structure," said Jonathan Sage-Martinson, the city's Department of Planning and Economic Development Director.

The shopping center

In March 2016, the St. Paul City Council approved $16.1 million in infrastructure funding, mostly from four of the city's pre-existing tax increment financing accounts, as well as $2 million in additional funds for environmental clean-up throughout the stadium and shopping center site. The council approved a preliminary plat for the privately-funded soccer stadium, as well as a master plan for the 35-acre Snelling-Midway "super block" in August 2016.

At the time, several members of the city council and neighborhood groups such as the Union Park District Council said their support for the stadium was contingent upon the shopping center becoming more pedestrian-friendly. The master plan, in fact, envisioned a development makeover with a possible movie theater, hotel and other amenities.

It's unclear how much of that is realistic. But city officials say laying the infrastructure, from stormwater tanks to roads, will help entice future real estate development.

"Is there a lot of investment going into this infrastructure? There is," Sage-Martinson acknowledged. "But we're leveraging the private investment. I haven't talked to one person who doesn't think the green space is a great deal. Our council has been very supportive of this shared stormwater concept. It all aligns with the master plan."

Eric Molho, who co-chairs a joint task force of the Union Park District Council and Hamline-Midway coalition focused on the Midway site, said interest in the infrastructure is high.

"The stormwater system, it's really complex and we're really excited to see it moving forward. The Great Lawn — that's great," Molho said. "There's a couple of concerns about the movement of a street light from Spruce Tree to Shields Avenue. We're really concerned about what the pedestrian flow is going to look like as people try to cross Snelling the other 340 (non-game) days a year. We really want to see more community engagement around the pedestrian access."

The Great Lawn

On Wednesday, the council will be asked to finalize lot lines in a final plat, a key requirement before the team can obtain a building permit to erect a stadium structure above ground.

The council also will be asked to approve a proposed 0.63-acre green space that will be installed south of the McDonald's and Perkins restaurants between a future extension of Spruce Tree Drive and a future extension of Shields Avenue.

The city will contribute $250,000 to cover the base finish, or standard public infrastructure, to support the "Great Lawn," including irrigation, turf, trees and benches or other street furniture.

Minnesota United is expected to put an estimated $140,000 toward additional land improvements. The team will operate and maintain the space for the city, making the Great Lawn one of the city's first official "POPS," or privately-operated public spaces.

The city has similar partnerships with the operators of the Little Mekong Plaza at University and Western avenues, and green space at Beacon Bluff by the old 3M campus on St. Paul's East Side.

"This is a new thing we've been wanting to do for years," Sage-Martinson said. During Green Line light rail construction, "we did a study in 2012 that looked for ways at how to do privately-owned, publicly-accessible space."

The arrangement fulfills the team's parkland dedication requirement, while the city gains new park space without ongoing maintenance costs.

Shared stormwater tanks

Traditionally, most developers build stormwater collection tanks under parking lots or in pits in out-of-the-way corners of their lots, surrounded by boulders. Sage-Martinson said two large underground tanks in the southwest corner of the Great Lawn will serve the entire 35-acre Midway "super block," and allow for separate collection of run-off water and rainwater. The latter can be reused for park irrigation or other purposes.

"Instead of one individual tank per project, you'll have a district stormwater system," said Sage-Martinson, who believes the cost efficiency of a shared system will serve as a "mild incentive" to promote future development. Developers "can go higher and denser now. They don't have to limit density in order to fit a stormwater management system, or build around it."

St. Paul received a planning grant last year from the "City Accelerator" project, which is organized by the Living Cities collaborative and the Citi Foundation, to rethink traditional stormwater management, and the Midway site is the first of three likely applications.

Similar "shared stacked" stormwater practices are expected at the old Ford manufacturing plant land in Highland Park as that area is redeveloped into a neighborhood, and at the West Side Flats off Plato Boulevard on the city's West Side.

As part of last year's $18 million infrastructure package, the city had already budgeted and approved $3 million for storm water management in the Midway. To that, the city will add another $2.4 million. That includes a $400,000 grant from the Capitol Region Watershed District, and the remaining $2 million will come from stormwater assessments on future real estate tied to the system as development occurs.

3 new roads

In 2018, the team will install three new street blocks within the Midway Shopping Center — extensions of North Asbury Street, Simpson Street and Spruce Street — around the Great Lawn. In addition, a 35-foot-wide pedestrian walkway will connect Shields Avenue and Spruce Street, framing the Great Lawn on its east.

At a cost to St. Paul Public Works of $250,000, the roads will be built like standard city streets, with utilities underneath, an invitation for future development.

Other/street improvements

St. Paul Public Works plans a total of $750,000 in improvements along Snelling Avenue, which include moving a traffic light at Spruce Tree Drive and Snelling Avenue one block south to Shields Avenue. Future changes to the medians along Snelling Avenue are still being discussed.

Another $400,000 would cover legal and miscellaneous costs, including a transportation management plan, of which $250,000 will be reimbursed by Minnesota United.

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.