Vadnais Heights residents resist luxury apartment building

A rendering of a potential luxury apartment building that could take the place of dilapidated buildings at Garceau corner.

VADNAIS HEIGHTS — Several residents spoke out against a potential apartment building at the old Garceau's Hardware corner at the Planning Commission's last meeting, describing the possibility a “scary,” “sore thumb,” “piece of Chicago,”  “nightmare.”

The currently dilapidated site on the corner of Centerville Road and Edgerton Street that includes the old hardware store, auto store and deli was purchased by the city in 2015. Dave Garceau had tried to sell the hardware site that contains buried building debris, but several potential buyers fell through, said City Administrator Kevin Watson.

When the deli went bankrupt, the city offered to buy both buildings for $735,000 in hopes it could attract a developer or business to the site. It has invested about $100,000 more in the site for environmental testing and other administrative costs.

The city looked into other options for the site, such as restaurants and senior housing. It has been difficult to find any interested businesses except a few used car sales lots, Watson noted. The city currently has about $1 million in environmental cleanup grants that would apply only to a high-density building. Considering that several senior housing complexes were recently built or are underway in the area, the city looked into apartment buildings.

The interested developer, Beard Group, has proposed a three-story, 106-unit luxury apartment building, but has not put in an official application. The potential building is called “Garceau Flats.”

However, Garceau family members were not impressed.

Ron Garceau brought a petition from neighbors in the area. “We are all against it,” he said. “This is probably my worst nightmare.” He said he would like not like 100 neighbors.

“We live here because of being in the country,” he added. “We don’t have no intention of living in a city. We want nothing to do with this.” Ron also warned that if the land is disturbed the termites that attack his home would probably infest the whole area.

“This is a very sentimental issue for me,” said Darlene Garceau, who said she was born in the area. She expressed concerns about traffic and changing the feel of the neighborhood. “It is just scary,” she added.

Another Garceau said he owns a house in the area and would like to move back, but wouldn't if the apartments are built.

“I ain't going to move back if I'm going to look at that thing. Instead of looking at a lake I am going to have someone looking at me changing my clothes every day,” said Mike Garceau.

Another resident, Bill, said he was worried about changing the character of the neighborhood and a possible increase in police activity.

“Do we want a piece of Chicago brought in?” he asked. “Because it is a sore thumb that just stands out against an otherwise peaceful setting.”

After hearing resident concerns, the commission tabled the land use amendment that would pave the way for the building, asking city staff to do research on how much the city would be affected financially by trying to find a single-family home, townhome or one-level apartment building developer instead.

 

Tax levy concerns

From a financial analysis, the city determined it would likely have to invest $900,000 more for townhomes or $500,000 more for a commercial site, due to the contributions it would likely have to make toward the cleanup, Watson noted.  

For an apartment building, the city would get back its investment and actually gain about $100,000, due to the higher profit a developer can make on a high-density building and the grants.

The $835,000 the city invested came from its TIF (tax increment financing) fund, which is similar to a savings account the city has to invest in projects, like paving streets. The money, which currently amounts to about $2 million, originally came from increases in tax revenues after the city center area was developed in the ’90s.

When the city invested the $835,000 in the Garceau site from the TIF fund, it expected to get it back. 

Since the fund is also used to redo streets, the tax levy may have to increase if the city is not able to get its investment back, Watson said.

 

Environmental hurdles

The current buildings are not only filled with asbestos, but there is actually rubble from an old St. Paul hospital buried on the site, also filled with asbestos. The hospital was actually buried in various places around Vadnais Heights about 40 years ago when it was considered a rural area.

Below the building debris is a swamp. A developer would likely not build on that portion of the site, which is about half of it, Watson noted. That decreases the value of the site.

There is also a petroleum plume from an old gas station slowly seeping down the hill, he noted. The site drops about 20 feet from the top as it slopes toward the lake. The petroleum would need to be cleaned up and a developer would possibly have to put in retaining walls to build on the slope of the site.

“It is a really tough site to develop and it is going to cost a lot,” Watson explained. A high-density developer would be reimbursed for the expense by about $1 million in grants after completing the cleanup. 

The 3.5-acre parcel up for sale includes one private rental property that owner Paul Hauck has offered to be incorporated into a new development

 

City Council undecided

At a workshop meeting March 15, Councilman Craig Johnson said he has heard from residents who want the city to recover its investment in the site.

“We spent $70 just to buy the property for each Vadnais Heights resident,” he said. “We are now slumlords; we own two broken-down buildings.” Johnson also expressed concern about losing the grant money and the empty buildings sitting around for more years.

Councilman Terry Nyblom expressed concerns about the city's financial state with TIF dollars being tied up in the site and its need for more money for future street improvements.

Nyblom and Councilwoman Heidi Gunderson said they were undecided about how they would vote at the April 5 public hearing. Councilman Greg Urban was not at the March 15 workshop.

 

Open house announced

Johnson, Gunderson and Nyblom requested a community open house be held concerning the site.

Mayor Bob Fletcher stated he was not opposed to an open house but would not be there because he has already decided he will vote against the project.

The open house will be held 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 29 at City Hall, 800 County Road E East. The Beard Group plans to present on the proposed development. The Planning Commission also plans to discuss the issue again at its 7 p.m. March 28 meeting.

 

Sara Marie Moore can be reached at 651-407-1235 or vadnaisheightsnews@presspubs.com.

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