Lake Elmo, Masters of the Long Game

lake elmo

Farms + mansions + acre lots = Lake Elmo

Back in 2003 I was working as a volunteer radio news reporter for KFAI, a great long-time community radio station on Minneapolis’ West Bank. Much like blogging, it was a fun (if unpaid) job involving many unexpected conversations and encounters with people from all corners of the city. I remember going to Minneapolis’ north side to cover one of Don Samuels’ day-long vigils following a shooting. I remember interviewing Cam Gordon when he was running for office against Cara Letofsky. (And lots of other stories too.)

One of the longest drives I ever made during those days* was to go out and interview the Lake Elmo city manager (and his assistant). Back then, Lake Elmo and the Met Council were famously locked in a legal struggle over the city’s comprehensive plan, and the regional planning authority’s right to require development in suburban cities. Lake Elmo was and is a sparsely populated city along the I-94 corridor about ten miles east of Saint Paul, and it’s one of the few places near the beltway where you can still find farms.

At the time I knew very little about urban planning, zoning, or development, and I remember sitting in the Lake Elmo office with the two city staff and listening to them talk about quality of life and the city’s rural character. (Of course, that’s usually a dog whistle for “rich white McMansions”.) One of the things I distinctly recall was the city manager saying, almost gleefully, “we don’t want to be another Woodbury. We’re going to build out [on one-acre lots], and then there’ll be nothing anyone can do.”**


The Gateway Corridor

Flash forward ten years, and Lake Elmo hasn’t changed much. They finally got on board with the Met Council’s comp plan requirements, but did so in an interesting way that attempted to focus on cluster development in a few key places. (They also defunded their library so that it now operates entirely on hopes, dreams, and unicorn sweat.)

But a funny thing happened on the way to Stillwater. The Met Council recently released recommendations for the Gateway route, a bus rapid transit (BRT) project that would run east from Saint Paul along the I-94 corridor out to Woodbury. Compared to the Southwest Light Rail (SWLRT) Hindenburg, the Gateway has flown under the radar. For one thing, it’s a bus rapid transit project (a fraction of the cost of the semi-tunneled Southwest light rail). For another thing, it goes through Saint Paul’s sleepy East Side and far-less-populated eastern suburbs, which have been clamoring for more geographic equity in transit investments for years.

After choosing between BRT and light rail (LRT), and opting not to go along East 7th Street, the toughest decision the Gateway Corridor Committee made centered on the eastern part of the route. Once you get out to the 3M corporate campus, there are a lot of options for where to put the dedicated busway. As it turns out, the Committee and the Met Council settled on the D2-E2 alternative, which would run on the north side of I-94 through Lake Elmo (skipping already-developed Woodbury) and only cross to the South side of the freeway at the (skin curdlingly named) Settlers Ridge Parkway, on the far edge of Woodbury.

“We Don’t Want to be Another Woodbury”


Woodbury’s best development still looks like a parking lot.

Suburban transit is always something of an oxymoron, and I have mixed feelings about investing much public money in attempts to shoehorn transit service into cities that are uniformly designed to be auto-dependent. Typically, those kinds of investments are far too expensive, and do little to change the [time + cost + comfort] equation of different modes. (In other words, you can’t make second-ring suburbs walkable.)

The more I think about it, Lake Elmo’s histrionic attempts to resist planning might have been quite a savvy move. The Gateway alignment is proposed to go through Lake Elmo precisely because all the land along that side of the freeway is still undeveloped. It doesn’t have cul-de-sacs, strip malls, big box stores, and one-story beige three-garage homes as far as the eye can see, which means that the land can be developed in walkable ways that support transit-oriented development.

According to the people I’ve talked to about the project, this was precisely the thinking of the committee. When asked on which side of the freeway to build a BRT right-of-way, planners essentially looked at Woodbury and said, “this is a lost cause.” Instead, Lake Elmo’s farm fields, combined with a few willing land owners, mean that the Gateway BRT station areas could be mixed use, (relatively) dense, and walkable.

The Mediocrity of Suburban Transit Investments

In general, I believe that the cost-benefit ratio for transit investments makes suburban transit projects almost always a bad deal. We will need a massive amount of development in order to make a $1.5 billion dollar project*** like the SWRLT pay off for the public, and I doubt the ability of already built-out cities like Eden Prairie to make the kinds of changes they’d need to really shift their urban development patterns. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, but I’m pretty skeptical. Meanwhile, transit investments make far more sense in cities that already have sidewalks, street grids, few parking moats, and some degree of mixed-use fabric. We should focus our investments along these already-existing transit corridors.

But if we’re really going to try to build transit in the suburbs, despite the underwhelming ridership projections, the Gateway project seems like the best case scenario. Thanks to Lake Elmo, there are a whole bunch of greenfield acres just waiting for an innovative transit-oriented developer to build something great. Compared to the car-only “CityPlace” development across the freeway in Woodbury, maybe Lake Elmo was pretty smart after all.


Rough development plans for the D2-E2 alignment. (Note: “Cityplace” at bottom, in blue.)

* I had a car back then, a 1986 BMW 325e. Pretty sweet. It died. It was expensive.

** I have the tape somewhere.

*** So far…

19 thoughts on “Lake Elmo, Masters of the Long Game

  1. Pingback: Chart of the Day: Gateway Corridor Job Projections |

  2. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    Optimistic! That is holding hope Lake Elmo develops this stretch with density. Maybe doing that here will be done to keep the expanses of one acre lots to the north. But has Lake Elmo shown signs to towards doing TOD along this line?

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      That’s what I’ve heard from some of the planners working on this. Apparently there are willing and interested land owners along the station areas with this alignment. I guess we’ll see.

      1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

        It could be a lot worse if this Lake Elmo strip ends up with a string of Hoigaard Village like developments.

  3. Nathan Roisennate

    I like the optimism; it definitely cuts against the prevailing opinion among people that follow this kind of thing.

    Maybe there really are 20,000 or so people out there that want the suburban address, schools, and perception of safety along with a less car-centered way of life and smaller living spaces. And maybe there’s a few hundred employers that want to locate here. And maybe there’s a few dozen developers that are willing to take the risk that all these people and businesses will materialize.

    It’s a tantalizing opportunity…much like a closer-in version of the UMore park down in Rosemount. I would feel more confident about it if the downtown it was connecting to was Minneapolis, though.

        1. Nathan Roisennate

          Hey now, I live and work in St Paul. I like it here!

          For all its got going for it, it’s not the regional center that Minneapolis is. I’m less confident that a bunch of greenfields will develop in an urban manner if they’re an 80+ minute, two-seat transit ride from DT Minneapolis.

  4. Matt Brillhart

    When the rubber hits the road, does the political environment exist in Lake Elmo to actually approve mixed-use development? An apartment complex? I won’t hold my breath.

    They’ll play ball with the transit line because it will bring “jobs” (likely the same sprawling light industrial type that’s around there today) and make everyone involved look good. But I’ll be quite surprised if any truly dense residential living is approved in Lake Elmo, even if it is squished right up against the freeway and far from the 1 acre lots.

    Woodbury seems to have the market cornered on big box retail, so the development of additional big box on the north side of the freeway is somewhat unlikely. Without any new big box anchors, and a serious glut of retail space between “Tamarack Village”, “Woodbury Lakes”, “City Place”, and the stuff over on CR-19 (Woodbury Drive), I can’t see there being any appetite whatsoever for new retail development along the Gateway Corridor on the north side of the freeway. It looks pretty grim. This line should have gone to Woodbury, not Lake Elmo.

    Now that the line won’t serve all of the existing retail jobs in Woodbury, there’s hardly any point to extending it east of 3M. Honestly, Ramsey could should just roll solo on this thing and build it from Downtown St. Paul to the county line at 3M. Washington County can be invited to extend the project when they show that they understand how transit works. It’s pure cowardice to run it down the path of least resistance (Lake Elmo), simply because it’s easier and more likely to get built. You put it where it serves the most people and jobs (Woodbury) and you stand up and fight the tough political fights against the naysayers.

    This line is a disaster in the making if allowed to proceed on the currently planned alignment. FIVE HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS to avoid Woodbury and run the line through absolutely nothing in Lake Elmo. This needs to be stopped at 3M, or stopped entirely.

    Allowing county commissioners to supersede the planning process and single-handedly choose transit alignments on a whim is no way to plan a transit system. We need to abolish the metro counties “railroad authorities” and give sole transit planning responsibility to the Met Council. The way things happen now is the counties choose crappy transit alignments and then hand them off to the Met Council to take all the blame when things don’t work out.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      I get your point Matt, and I tried to make clear that I’m not a huge fan of this project in general. I think there are far better ways to make transit investments, and much better systems for linking land use and transportation together. Compare this to the Orange Line, Northstar, SRLRT or Bottineau, and … well [shrug].

      The thought that jumped in my head when looking at this project, though, was about the decision to go through Lake Elmo vs. Woodbury. I find that fascinating. I wouldn’t have expected the committee to choose the North side of the freeway, but they did. And I wish I had better quotes about why, but it’s pretty intriguing that they opted for empty fields over the currently existing second-ring big-box sprawl that exists on the South side.

      Your critiques of the system are right on, but that doesn’t change the fact that the planners chose TOD potential over empty promises of retrofitting suburbia.

  5. Nathaniel

    Great post Bill.

    The other thing I would like to point out is that if and when suburbs develop mixed-use or more-dense multifamily housing, they always do next to a highway or interstate. If you look at most suburban density, even the likes of City Walk/Place in Woodbury, you can never escape the sound of the freeway.

    I am skeptical of the the projections, especially giving municipalities transit when they often times don’t even want it. We should concentrate on providing better transit to those places who actually use it and want to use it.

    1. Joe

      Pretty much the entirety of Minneapolis is within a mile of a freeway between 100, 394, 94, 35W, 62, 280 and whether we want to include Hiawatha (not a freeway but many cars and noisy). And airplane noise is also a problem for the southern 1/4 of the city. So I don’t think suburbs have a monopoly on freeway noise.

  6. Eric SaathoffEric S

    I think similarly about the Rush Line, which isn’t as far along. We should be thinking more streetcar, less BRT, less suburban LRT – not because streetcars are necessarily better but because they are focused on local, dense parts of the core cities. On the other hand, if I want to be car free and visit one of these suburbs, it would be nice if there were a regional rail or bus system that worked well as an alternative. I’m thinking of the Metra to Chicago’s CTA or the RER in Paris.
    We should have metro area transit, but it should follow a robust urban system, not precede it.

    I imagine both Lake Elmo and Woodbury would only amount to huge Park and Rides, which is about as far from TOD as you can get. The nearest structure to your stop is a massive parking ramp. Is this line going to be built in Lake Elmo without a Park and Ride at each stop? Even if someone has plans for a dense TOD, it can’t get there soon enough to avoid the parking ramps.

  7. Alex

    The thing is, a lot of the already developed 2nd ring suburban landscape is essentially a blank slate, too. The vast empty parking lot fields are an easy place to fill in, as Edina first learned with the Westin development and is still applying in the Southdale Place and Lunds developments. On top of this, the extremely low quality construction of many of the existing buildings make them economical to replace.

      1. Alex

        Check their codes and plans. They’re psyched (by “they” I mean their planning depts of course). Eden Prairie already has a great TOD overlay in place in their station areas. I’m not sure the same is true of Woodbury, but neither are we sure about Lake Elmo, are we?

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