A sustainable and affordable shared apartment on the future Southwest Light Rail line in St. Louis Park is expected to finally welcome tenants this year – after the city approved four extensions for the developer that delayed completion by three years.
The latest extension was approved by the city council last month, with the only vote against by Mayor Jake Spano, who said he wanted to send a message to Minneapolis-based nonprofit developer PLACE that his patience was exhausted and “It’s time. “
“We saw in this project the opportunity to create something really unique and special,” said Spano. “We have to see what is unique and special because we have people who have to live in it.”
The $ 88.4 million mixed-use project called Via Sol is nearly 80% complete. The five-story apartment complex will offer 152 budget units and 65 commercial units.
Construction has faced setbacks and delays, mainly caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and funding issues, said Chris Velasco, PLACE executive director. Community development is complicated, he said, and coupled with affordable housing – which is expensive and heavily regulated – this is a recipe for delays and massive cost increases.
“Public charity projects are by definition very, very difficult. They take longer and are more challenging than traditional, conventional projects,” Velasco said. “Exceptional projects are exceptionally difficult.”
PLACE has to complete construction by September, but Velasco hopes Via Sol will welcome tenants this summer.
The latest expansion gives PLACE until June 2023 to complete the “E-Generation facility”, an adjoining 10,200 square meter vertical greenhouse and green energy space for urban agriculture. The solar powered facility will compost food waste on site to grow organic produce and sell it on Via Sol.
The nearly 4 hectare site includes an urban forest with a children’s playground and public art. Velasco said the space previously used for retail and bicycle repair shops will instead be used to sell the organic food grown there.
The shared apartment is adjacent to the Cedar Lake Trail and the future Southwest Line, which makes it possible to live on Via Sol without owning a car, Velasco said.
In 2017 the developers signed a contract with the city, but the groundbreaking in Via Sol did not take place until January 2020. In the beginning, the ambitions for the site were even higher.
PLACE planned a six-story hotel with 110 rooms and another mixed-use building with 81 units and a café, but the $ 55 million addition at the southern end of the property was canceled by mutual agreement in 2019 by the developer and the city.
St. Louis Park plans to work with another developer on this part of the property to provide more affordable housing along the future Southwest Line, which has also been delayed. Spano said he was joking with people that light rail vehicles would be available by the end of his first term in 2020. Now, he said, the city will have it until 2028, the end of what will hopefully be his third term.
Spano said he remains a supporter of Via Sol and that PLACE is not a big developer with big pockets to fund the project.
“It’s the first time I’ve known we’ve done something this big with a nonprofit developer,” he said.
PLACE closed all remaining funding for the project this week, having recently secured additional $ 10 million in bonds. The city council approved roughly $ 3.4 million in 2018 for PLACE in Tax Increment Funding (TIF) generated by the completed project and paid for through the developer’s biennial property tax payments.
No general city funds were made available for the development, but the Economic Development Authority allowed PLACE to pay for part of the land purchase over a period of 10 years. City officials said PLACE made regular monthly payments on the deferred loan.
Despite the setbacks, Velasco said the waiting list for people who want to live in Via Sol is growing.
“While it is not for everyone, there is no place like this for the people who live in a place like this and want to grow their own organic food locally and with 100% renewable energy,” he said. “I think we are really fulfilling a dream for a lot of people looking for such a community.”