In split vote, Elk River council supports idea of another apartment building by train station

Click here, Outlot G map, to see a map of the Northstar train station area with the proposed apartment building site.

by Joni Astrup

Associate editor

Elk River Station, with the existing apartment building in the background.

In a 3-2 vote, the Elk River City Council has changed the land use of a parcel near the Northstar train station to allow an apartment building to be constructed there.

The land use change to include multiple family residential was favored by council members Matt Westgaard, Nick Zerwas and Jerry Gumphrey. Council Member Paul Motin and Mayor John Dietz opposed it.

It’s not the last word, however. To build an apartment building on the parcel, at a minimum the property would need to be platted and a permit would need to be approved for the building, according to Elk River City Planner Jeremy Barnhart. Both steps require a public hearing.

The three-acre site, known as Outlot G, was originally planned to contain two retail/office buildings as well as a convenience store/gas station. Now Duffy Development Co. would like to build a 53-unit apartment building where the retail/office buildings have been proposed. The convenience store/gas station would stay in the plan.

The apartment building would be patterned after The Depot at Elk River Station, the apartment building recently built across the street from the train station. Duffy Development is behind both apartment building projects.

Both sites are part of the Elk River Station Planned Unit Development, which was approved by the City Council in 2002. It originally called for a 60-unit apartment building, a daycare center, a 70-unit senior housing building, five office/retail buildings, a convenience store and 298 townhome lots. So far the townhouse lots, the senior housing (Pullman Place) and the apartment building (53 units) have been constructed, according to Barnhart.

Meanwhile, two residents of the area testified in opposition to another apartment building.

One woman said she doesn’t see how it would help the area.

She cited problems stemming from the existing apartment building including unsupervised children on the townhome association grounds and using its playground, prompting a safety concern because of a large pond in the development. The apartment building also doesn’t have enough parking, resulting in overflow onto the public road, she said.

She thinks the proposed apartment building site would be better used for an industrial company to create more jobs.

John Duffy of Duffy Development Co. said The Depot at Elk River Station apartment building has its own playground, which people watch and try to supervise. “I’m sure kids probably go wherever kids go — we have other kids playing on our site,” Duffy said. He said they have asked people to call if children from the outside the townhomes are using the playground by the townhomes, but no one has.

Regarding parking, he said that’s the first he’s heard of insufficient parking. They have room for additional parking if it’s needed, he said.

Council Member Motin opposes the proposed apartment building. He believes the site is still viable for commercial development with all the people living in the area and motorists passing by on Twin Lakes Road.

He thinks the location would be horrible for residential development, noting children would have to cross Twin Lakes Road to get to other things or potentially wander into the area near the Northstar train station.

“It’s just surrounded by danger for the kids who live in that area,” he said.

But Council Member Westgaard said the proposed apartment building site is not a good spot for commercial development because it has poor access.

He said the city’s recent study of the area, known as the Focused Area Study or FAST, noted that mixed use development would be best around the train station. Westgaard would like to see a retail element on the first floor of the proposed apartment building with housing on the upper floors.

Council Member Zerwas said before the Northstar station was built, the prevailing thought was that it would bring in a lot of commercial development. But at stations up and down the line that hasn’t been the case.

“They (Duffy Development) are reacting to that reality and I don’t fault them for doing that,” Zerwas said.

In a memo, Barnhart said that commuter rail users traditionally do not visit shops near a station. Rather, they tend to get in their cars and go.

Council Member Gumphrey also expressed support for the apartment building plan. However, he’d like to see a larger play area associated with it. He also encouraged Duffy to take a hard look at the parking situation at the existing The Depot at Elk River Station building and add parking if it’s needed.