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When neighbors vehemently opposed a plan to build an apartment complex on city-owned land across from a popular lake, leaders in Vadnais Heights took an unusual tack.

They scrapped their plans for the apartments, gave back about $1 million in grant funding that they had obtained to clean up the 3-acre site, and instead asked residents what they thought should go there.

The residents’ answer: a destination brewery or distillery with views of scenic Lake Vadnais, providing a community gathering space and perhaps even a rooftop patio.

So city leaders have agreed to aggressively market the site for that purpose, sending out nearly 340 letters this month to existing brewers and distillers who may be looking to expand.

Vadnais Heights Mayor Heidi Gunderson said they want to build trust with the city’s 13,000 residents, many of whom view redevelopment with a cynical eye. This was a chance to draw back the curtain and allow residents to learn more about how the process works, and the fact that the property is owned by the city offered a unique opportunity.

“Change is really hard in communities like ours,” said Gunderson, in her second year as mayor. People have a strong attachment to the feel of their community. That is where change becomes really difficult.”

The same growing pains are being felt across the Twin Cities. Market forces driving the recent redevelopment boom have pushed leaders in the suburbs, many long dominated by single-family neighborhoods, into approval of taller and denser apartment complexes, senior living and mixed-use projects more compact and urban than the homes that drew many there in the first place.

It’s spawned intense battles at city halls and even courtrooms across the region. For instance, Ramsey County and Arden Hills continue to be locked in a legal battle over redevelopment of the 427-acre former Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant site.

Real chance to have a say

A 14-member task force of Vadnais Heights residents and business leaders, led by an outside facilitator, recommended the brewery/distillery plan after meeting for six months, touring the site and consulting with a bevy of real estate, development and business experts. It reached the decision after a series of votes, and it wasn’t unanimous.

“It was good to engage them and get their thoughts. Now we are going to honor their recommendations,” Gunderson said.

One task force member was schoolteacher Ashley Wilke, who saw a notice about the task force and decided to join. She grew up visiting her grandparents in Vadnais Heights and bought their home a year ago. It’s just a few blocks from the city property at 3429 Centerville Road that many still call the Garceau Hardware site after the vacant building still there.

“It’s a nostalgic corner,” said Wilke, recalling that she used to buy candy at the market there as a child. “I thought if I can have a say in what goes on that corner, I’d like that.”

Like many in the neighborhood, she wasn’t thrilled by the city’s plans to put an apartment complex in the middle of a largely single-family neighborhood. Wilke said no one was motivated by malice or prejudice — it’s just that she and her neighbors value the space, quiet and natural elements that define the area.

“I was skeptical when I started. I said at the first meeting, ‘Is there a solution the city already has in mind and are you just trying to convince us?’ ” she said. But she came to believe the city’s motives were sincere and that she had an authentic opportunity to have a say.

Many neighbors did not know that the site contained fuel tanks and other pollution from the hardware store and gas station that once stood there, possibly requiring a pricey environmental cleanup. The two vacant commercial buildings on the site also are in rough shape, with one, the old Vadnais Market, likely needing demolition.

Task force members toured the site and consulted with real estate agents, developers of single-family homes, townhouses, apartments, senior assisted living and commercial projects. They met with a restaurant owner, who talked about the market challenges of a location with low traffic volumes. They met with financial and environmental experts.

“It was a learning opportunity for me,” Wilke said. “You could tell the city was trying to do their due diligence and be nonbiased.”

Wilke said the task force discussed at length what the city’s goal should be — whether it should recoup the $835,000 in tax-increment financing (TIF) and staff time that it’s spent on the property since acquiring it in 2015, or build something that would bolster a sense of community even if it was less profitable.

Some on the task force wanted the property cleared and re-imagined as open natural space. Then the city would have to repay the TIF dollars it used, which are earmarked for redevelopment, and take the purchase price from the general tax levy. Some stressed the city should get their money out of the project and grow the city’s tax base.

A roof with a view

Wilke, who works part time as a server at a gourmet restaurant, said she researched the destination brewery idea on her own and presented it to the task force. She viewed it as a middle option, one that could help the city get back its money and build community. Not only that, a brewer could reuse the old hardware building, which would lower the environmental cleanup costs.

“People go nuts in Minnesota for rooftops. Breweries are up-and-coming here,” Wilke said.

Vadnais Heights Community Development Director Nolan Wall said city leaders are making great efforts to bring the plan to life and wrote in their letter that the city is “VERY negotiable” on purchase price, depending on the level of investment proposed by a potential buyer.

“The site presents the opportunity to create a destination for someone with access to trails and outdoor space. You do see the lake from the rooftop,” Wall said. “This would really have to be a destination. It’s not on a main drag. It’s quiet. If we found the right buyer, they could tap into that and be quite successful.”

Wilke and others on the task force acknowledge the market may not support their vision. A brewery is slated to open this year in nearby Roseville, which is an established retail and dining hot spot.

“We did put the caveat on it that we would pursue the brewery for six months,” Wall said. “If there isn’t any interest, then we will have to reassess.”