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It’s been almost 15 years since the late congressman Bruce Vento called for reusing and developing the sprawling Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant in Arden Hills.
For years, the complex of apparently empty buildings, overgrown lots and unkempt pastures has sat unchanged near a busy intersection of highways. But community leaders say an upcoming land auction could finally trigger development.
Owned by the U.S. Army, much of the site has been contaminated by decades of munitions manufacturing. The cleanup of the 2,370-acre site has proved to be a barrier to transferring the property to civilian hands.
Now, with the majority of a cleanup complete on 430 acres on the southwest corner of the property now dubbed Northern Pointe, the U.S. government plans to put the land on the market as early as next month.
As one of the metro area’s largest tracts of undeveloped land, many are paying close attention to what gets built in the quiet suburban community. And at what price.
“It’s a huge development opportunity with regional significance,” said Caren Dewar, executive director of Urban Land Institute MN.
The size of the project, the cleanup, and the economy all make it “very complex,” Dewar said. “It’s not straightforward … work.”
Risks Vs. Rewards / Past proposals have envisioned mixed developments of housing and businesses for the site. There has been talk of a new Vikings stadium or a racetrack. What will work on the property, and who might buy it to
make it happen, remain a toss up, say those who follow its progress.
Building on such a large parcel of land has its pluses and minuses, Dewar said.
“There aren’t many opportunities like this. If you’re a developer, it’s pretty darn fun,” she said. But in a weak economy and unstable real-estate market, “I think you’re going to see the development community take less of a chance because of the risks involved.”
Likely adding to the risk is the environmental cleanup issue. Areas of soil contamination remain from when ammunition was produced there.
High cleanup costs at a time when the real-estate market was tanking prompted one developer to pull out of the project almost two years ago.
“There’s a significant task in getting the property ready,” said Mike Fix, a representative of the Army. “But our estimates still say the value of the property exceeds the cost of the cleanup and is a positive deal for someone who takes it over.”
The U.S. General Services Administration, in charge of selling the property, will likely offer a fixer-upper-type scenario: Buy the property for less than it’s worth and do the rest of the heavy lifting toward its development. That includes clearing the remaining contaminated soil, deciding what to do with several vacant buildings, constructing roads and providing utilities.
In 1982, 14 sites at TCAAP were contaminated enough to be placed on the Superfund National Priorities list. The Army, Environmental Protection Agency and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency signed an agreement in 1997 putting the Army in charge of cleaning the grounds to industrial standards.
About 90 percent of the land to be sold has been cleaned up, Army officials said.
The remaining soil cleanup will be the responsibility of its new owner, Army officials said. However, the buyer will not be responsible for the groundwater cleanup. The federal government will continue to pay for, maintain and monitor wells on the site.
Cleanup costs prompted local developer Ryan Cos. to pull out of a proposed $850 million mixed-use development in May 2009. The plan was to build 1,750 housing units as well as offices and shops. But the Minneapolis company deemed the project unfeasible.
“It was essentially due to a challenging economic situation and the significant cost for cleanup,” said Rick Collins, vice president of development for Ryan Cos.
However, the company hasn’t necessarily thrown in the towel. Last summer, representatives from Ryan Cos. were among a handful of potential buyers who attended a bidder’s conference on the TCAAP sale.
“We certainly haven’t decided to bid, but we haven’t decided not to bid. … Our decision will take into account market conditions and remediation costs,” Collins said. “We will continue to monitor what happens with TCAAP. We have an awful lot of time, effort and dollars invested in understanding this site.”
Nearing Time For Bids / The government’s decision to put the land up for auction is expected to make the land — and its redevelopment — more affordable, observers said.
“The market will drive the price of the sale,” said General Services Administration spokeswoman Paula Santangelo, who added that the agency doesn’t have an appraised value for the property.
Originally the land was to be sold through an online public auction, but that has changed to a sealed-bid process.
Santangelo said a notice of sale could be posted as early as next month. Once the process is opened, potential buyers have up to 90 days to submit bids. After the bid period closes, the General Services Administration estimates it will take about 30 days to award the sale.
Officials say details of a purchase will be released after the land is sold.
Hoping to alleviate any developer concerns about high initial costs because of the environmental cleanup, Fix notes that some areas are ready to break ground immediately. A buyer could develop some plots of land, which could help pay the costs of cleaning up other portions of the site.
Arden Hills officials are watching the sale closely. Once a sale is complete, the city will work with the buyer to make sure whatever gets built complies with zoning laws, currently approved as mixed-used business and residential.
“We’re the outsider here,” said Jill Hutmacher, community-development director. “The city has zoned the property, but the sale process is pretty much out of their hands.”
David Grant, a longtime Arden Hills City Council member who recently became mayor, has seen many governing boards plan for development of TCAAP over the years. He said he hopes to see things move along.
The city has two immediate goals, he says: Get the property into developers’ hands and get the land cleaned up.
While the sale will focus on developing a significant portion of the TCAAP site, the majority of it will remain in public hands.
The Minnesota Army National Guard uses more than 1,000 acres for training. Ramsey County owns 113 acres of the Rice Creek trail at the northwest corner of the property and an additional 36 acres where a public works building and sheriff’s patrol station sit.
Nancy Ngo can be reached at 651-228-5172.