After 13 years of debate and inaction following the annexation of 530-acres near Northfield Hospital and Clinics, city leaders again placed the issue on the back-burner.
Once the pandemic wanes, city officials say the site could be a key driver of economic and population growth as Northfield seeks to develop more housing and usher in new businesses, both potential uses for the area.
Plans to develop the site, land occupying 10% of the city’s total acreage and expected to allow the city to achieve needed economic and housing growth, have proven controversial. A plan approved by the council in 2006 found the city needed 120 acres of available land for commercial/industrial development. In 2011, then-Economic Development Director Jody Gunderson led the effort to plan for a business park on about 500 acres adjacent to the city hospital annexed in June 2008. However, the council put the brakes on the proposal, criticizing it for including small areas of retail and residential and noting that the city has no way to fund the infrastructure it called for.
‘It sets us apart’
Community Development Director Mitzi Baker has been evaluating whether new zoning would be needed in the area, now mainly used as cropland, for any development. Also, the city is adopting a future land use map that includes that area and is updating land use provisions. The city set aside $100,000 in this year’s budget to incrementally update its comprehensive plan.
The area is one of the few large tracts of land that would support development and allow the city to develop closer to I-35, an attractive option for certain businesses.
“It’s a really important opportunity for growth for Northfield,” Baker noted.
As the region emerges from the pandemic, Baker expects the city to identify key strategies in increasing Northfield’s presence as a community ready for economic growth. One possible strategy is attracting businesses who share the city’s commitment to the environment and sustainability. The Northfield City Council has signaled its desire for the city to achieve carbon-neutral energy by 2040.
“It sets it apart from other communities,” Baker said of the city’s environmental goals. She noted a major part of community planning is focusing on a longer period than five years and preparing the community for that with a proper vision and strategy, including planning for infrastructure and capital improvement programs. Also, community development staff are responsible for sharing the community’s story with investors to bring them to Northfield.
Prime development spot
Fifty acres of ag land zoned for residential use rests east of Northfield Hospital & Clinics. That area, owned by St. Olaf College and not included in the 530-acre piece, is in a “prime location” for development, says City Administrator Ben Martig. And with the introduction of housing, would move toward filling the city’s extensive housing needs.
The results of the Northwest Area Land Use Consultant and Process Advisory Committee, a group tasked with identifying site options, were released in 2018 and approved by the council in early 2019. The group called on the council to break down the 500 acres into different parts, starting with the 50-acre parcel.
Along with the 50 acres, Hwy. 19 could be redesigned to provide safe access onto North Avenue. Though Martig noted there is no immediate plan to build on the 50-acre site, Xcel Energy has designated the area as “shovel-ready,” a sign of the company’s belief that it is a good place to develop. There are long-term plans to relocate roads to connect onto nearby Cedar Avenue and possibly construct a new water tower in the area if the 500 acres are developed.
Once those pieces are in place, Baker said the land “will be much more desirable and attractive to developers.”
Betsy Buckheit, who in 2011 represented the city’s Second Ward, said the plan at that time was undesirable because of the size of the expected park, its distance from existing infrastructure and the city’s core, and its non-conformance with compact development principles favored in the city’s comprehensive plan. Then-Councilor Patrick Ganey questioned the wisdom of spending up to $12 million to install infrastructure in the first phase of the four-part park plan.
The Northwest Area Land Use Consultant and Process Advisory Committee’s recommendation came after about eight months of meetings, including hearing from professional consultants. The committee also found that the total 530 acres could not be viewed in isolation from the city’s overall economic development strategies and needed to be integrated physically and economically into the community. Also, the committee found that development in the northwest should support and not draw business from the downtown. New plans were expected to need aspects like market feasibility, fiscal analysis and other things.