Three new Arden Hills City Council members took office Monday and immediately began to move forward with their unified campaign promise: to thaw a political stalemate and develop the former Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant site.
It was standing room only in the council chambers as council members Tom Fabel, Tena Monson and Emily Rousseau took the oath of office. What followed was a raucous, five-hour meeting during which the new council majority took away the mayor's power to recommend committee appointments and instead appointed themselves to key seats — including to the joint powers authority that governs TCAAP development.
"We believe change needs to be made," Fabel said.
The 427-acre site, which officials pitched more than a decade ago for the new Vikings stadium, is among the largest undeveloped tracts in the metro. Buildout has been stalled for years amid disagreement between the city and county over how much housing it should include.
The new council members defeated three incumbents in the November election. They ran as a slate under the banner Advance Arden Hills, promising voters to push forward on buildout of the shovel-ready site renamed Rice Creek Commons.
The two incumbents, Mayor David Grant and Council Member Brenda Holden, strenuously objected to what some residents called a coup. The meeting included two hours of emotional public testimony on both sides of the issue, testy exchanges between council members and frequent audience interruptions including, at one point, booing.
"It's simply not right," said Grant, who along with Holden was removed from the joint powers authority. "What's being done tonight is not working together."
The city attorney said the new majority's actions was permissible under state law, but Grant said it stripped him of his powers and violated the will of the voters.
Grant was re-elected in November, defeating challenger Gregg Larson, who was part of the Advance Arden Hills alliance. Grant said it showed that residents want compromise.
Development of the TCAAP site has been embroiled in a pitched political battle between Arden Hills, where the property is located, and landowner Ramsey County.
The county bought the land — a former World War II-era ammunition manufacturing site — from the federal government in 2012, but Arden Hills retains substantial control. That same year, the city and county signed a power-sharing agreement, valid through 2038, to oversee the site's development. The county has spent more than $40 million on the property, including additional cleanup.
The partnership soured in 2019, when the county demanded more housing than the 1,460 units originally planned along with businesses, including office and retail. The number of affordable units has also been a point of contention, with the county seeking more.
The county sued to end the power share with the city, but a judge sided with Arden Hills, giving city leaders the ability to move forward — or stall — the project.
Grant said he is committed to developing the property but wants to protect the city's financial interests.
While campaigning, the new council members said they were eager to see the benefits of Rice Creek Commons, including its promise of $700 million in development, 4,000 jobs, homes, retail, parks and an expanded tax base.
Monson said changing committee appointments on the TCAAP governing board was not personal but rather a tactical change meant to revive negotiations with the county.
"Everybody has to put their egos aside," she said.
More than two dozen residents addressed the council. Some lambasted the new members for seizing control, while others praised them for immediately acting on their campaign promise to move the development forward. Many speakers pleaded with the council to work together.
"Will you bridge the division or sow the seeds of discontent?" asked resident Timothy Stevens.