Written by John Hagedorn
There’s still room in Washington County–even in two of its most developed cities. The opening of the St. Croix Crossing bridge in August 2017 has brought notable changes to the cities along the river. And despite appearances, there is room in the cities near the new bridge for developers wishing to tap into the region’s appealing location and demographics.
Oak Park Heights: A Retail Destination
“Our city is thought to be at full build-out,” said Eric Johnson, city administrator for one of those cities, Oak Park Heights. With the river on the east, with Bayport and Lake Elmo to the south, and Stillwater to the north, Johnson’s city does appear to be landlocked. And the city’s biggest employer, Andersen Windows, already owns a good percent of that land. “However, within our current borders, in various pieces, there are 40-plus acres of land that could still be developed within the corridor,” Johnson adds. That “corridor” is Minnesota Highway 36, which connects with the St. Croix Crossing. Both sides of Highway 36 seem at capacity with retail and restaurants. But appearances are a little deceiving. In fact, there’s been plenty of new development and redevelopment along the corridor. That includes the rehabilitation of the Stillwater Crossing retail mall—which, despite its name, is actually in Oak Park Heights.
“These aren’t large square-footage developments,” Johnson notes. “But they’re on quality locations with excellent exposure, and they’ve always been ripe for redevelopment.” One of those locations is at the intersection of Highway 36 and Norell Avenue. The Washington County CDA provided a grant to the City of Oak Park Heights for a redevelopment study of the southwest corner. That study helped the city with its redevelopment planning efforts to improve the area where Plymouth-based TOLD Development Co. is building its first regional project. The corner was close to “a lot of existing national retailers whom we do a lot of business with,” TOLD vice president Trent Mayberry says. But it was new territory for one of those clients, Panera Bread. At the same time, he adds, “the co-tenancies Panera looks for were there,” including Walmart and Target. That was just part of the appeal for Panera and TOLD. There are “the large traffic counts on Highway 36,” which provides easy access, not only within Washington County, but also to and from Wisconsin. Plus, Mayberry says, that particular corner has “arguably the best signal-light intersection in Oak Park
Heights and Stillwater.” When you add up those advantages, he adds, “you have the recipe for a winning project.” A municipality willing to smooth the road for new development “is icing on the cake,” Mayberry says.
The new Panera is opening in the first half of this year; TOLD is marketing an adjacent parcel to other national retailers. Mayberry says that TOLD is now looking for other project possibilities in eastern Washington County.
Stillwater Isn’t Keeping Still
Just north of Oak Park Heights is Stillwater, the county’s most historic city, and its most charming. With about nine square miles of land within its city limits and a population of a little less than 20,000, “we’re a modest-growth community,” Stillwater city administrator Tom McCarty says.
But McCarty also notes that developers and redevelopers still want to be part of Stillwater. The number of visitors hasn’t declined with the closure of the picturesque Lift Bridge. That has meant less car traffic coming directly into downtown Stillwater. But unlike Oak Park Heights, which has benefited from new traffic to and from the new bridge, downtown Stillwater seems to be doing better with less traffic. “If you were to query the businesses up and down Main Street, the response you’d get would be positive,” McCarty says. “Prior to the new bridge’s opening, there were roughly 18,000 vehicles per day coming through downtown. When the bridge was up, cars would stack up at every intersection.” With the opening of St. Croix Crossing, downtown has become “easier to navigate” for the city’s numerous visitors.
Local businesses are taking advantage. In October 2018, the historic Water Street Inn broke ground on a 23-room expansion, which owner Chuck Dougherty says will be completed this summer. The project will add 23 new rooms to its existing 41, along with an expansion of the inn’s popular pub. Thanks to the new bridge, downtown Stillwater is calmer, Dougherty says, but without losing its “Main Street feel” and vibrancy. That should add to the city’s already considerable appeal as a destination for weddings and corporate gatherings. With a new bike trail across the old bridge scheduled to open this summer, along with the Brown’s Creek Trail that opened a few years ago, “there seems to me to be a need for more rooms downtown.” Not far from the Water Street Inn, the old Wolf brewery complex has been turned into the hipster-stylish Lora Hotel, with amenities including complementary bicycles and pet accommodations. In the northern part of the city, the 52-room Crosby Hotel opened at year’s end.
McCarty acknowledges that there are more “redevelopment opportunities” in Stillwater than large green space. Developers looking for, say, 100 acres for an industrial park or a massive new warehouse will need to look elsewhere. That noted, there’s room for new retailers and smaller housing projects. The city is home to several small manufacturers and businesses providing specialized services in the health care sector. For start-ups and other smaller companies looking for space in an area close to amenities and good housing, “there are plenty of opportunities,” McCarty says.
Communities to Connect To
The St. Croix Crossing Bridge has enhanced the already substantial advantages of Oak Park Heights, Stillwater, and the entire St. Croix Valley. “It’s no surprise that new residents and businesses alike are moving here,” Washington County Commissioner Gary Kriesel says. “We have access to nature through our trails, waterways, and just by stepping out our front doors. And it will become that much easier to enjoy nature as we continue to
connect our communities with new biking and pedestrian paths, and provide added access to the St. Croix through new parks and boat landings. At the same time, we have the small-town advantage of having every service or shopping need right in the neighborhood. Our schools are second to none, which means that families can be proud to educate their children close to home, and businesses can find qualified workers who live next door.” And the cities of the valley are more than willing to build bridges connecting developers to those demographics.