The future development of the controversial Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant site is now in the hands of voters.
The 427-acre, shovel-ready site renamed Rice Creek Commons has been embroiled in a pitched political battle between Arden Hills, where the property is located, and landowner Ramsey County. Now, a slate of four City Council and mayoral candidates are promising to thaw relations with the county and advance development if they win a majority of the five-seat council.
"Let's get TCAAP done. Let's grow our tax base. Let's do something with this wildly unique opportunity," said council candidate Tena Monson, one of the four campaigning together under the slogan "Advance Arden Hills."
Four incumbents, including Mayor David Grant, say they'd also like to see the former Superfund site developed but will only agree to a development deal that they say minimizes financial risk to the city and its residents. The current council has rejected Ramsey County's request to build as many as 2,500 housing units on the site. The number of affordable units has also been a point of contention, with the county seeking more.
"You don't want to be a small community on the wrong side of such a large financial project. What happens if the development stalls?" Grant said. "We want to look out for the good of the city. We also want it to reflect the character and values of our community."
Ramsey County bought the land 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 partnership soured in 2019. 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.
Now, three years later and weeks from the November election, the mayor and current council members — all but one of whom are up for re-election — and their challengers are openly disputing the risk the potential development poses to the suburb of 10,000.
The four challengers say they're eager to see the benefits of Rice Creek Commons, including its promise of $700 million in development, 4,000 new jobs, new homes, new retail, new parks and an expanded tax base.
"The current council members always seem to look at this as a burden — as a glass half empty vs. glass half full," said mayoral candidate Gregg Larson. "Every other city in the metro would love this opportunity."
The challengers say they've been requesting city documents and financials pertaining to the development because they believe the current council is overstating the risk. They said their data requests were denied, with the city attorney determining the information was not public.
"Decisions need to be based on facts and data, not fear," said council challenger Emily Rousseau. "I don't think the city's and county's visions are that far off. It's really just a difference of a couple hundred housing units."
The challengers also say they feel as though the council's fight against added density and affordability is not in line with the community's values. Housing is desperately needed throughout the Twin Cities, said council candidate Tom Fabel.
"This is the opportunity for the city of Arden Hills to do the right thing," he said.
It's also a chance to recoup the more than $40 million that Ramsey County has spent on the property, as well as costs to the city, Fabel said.
But the sitting council insists the risks are real, and that the city will be on the hook for a variety of expenses, including a new water tower and utilities.
"That will cost upwards of $10 million," Grant said. "It's substantial for a city with a levy under $5 million."
In May, the council approved a series of terms around financing and affordable housing with developer Alatus in hopes of mitigating some risk while moving the project forward. The city agreed to $17 million in tax-increment financing (TIF) for the developer and to allow for 326 affordable housing units, but kept the total number of units at 1,460.
In return, Alatus agreed to privately finance water tower construction as well as water and sewer utilities totaling $8.5 million. Alatus also agreed to reimburse the city $1 million for planning costs and to build three new city parks valued at $14.5 million.
Alatus did not respond to a request for comment.
County leaders rejected the deal, saying it was not fully aligned with their economic, environmental and equity goals.
City leaders are continuing to push back. Council Member Steve Scott said he and his colleagues have successfully stood up to county leaders in the past and continue to negotiate with Alatus.
"It's definitely not the city who put the stop on this development. It's not the city who is the unwilling partner," he said. "This TCAAP development will be funded by the future residents, not by the current residents of Arden Hills."
"We are going to protect the taxpayers of Arden Hills," said Council Member David Radziej.
The council's position on TCAAP reflects the will of the residents, said Council Member Fran Holmes.
"The vast majority feels the city is on the right course," she said. "We need to stay the course."