The Thompson Oaks Golf Course has been a years-long bugbear for West St. Paul. The city, which owns the land, finally shut the place down in early 2018 after years of hemorrhaging money, and it was uncertain what—if anything—should be done with the site.
As of Monday last week, the City Council reached a tentative plan. They voted unanimously to switch up the zoning so a new four-story, market-rate apartment complex could be built there. It’s supposed to have a mix of everything from studios to three-bedrooms ranging from about $1,000 to $2,300, and over 250 parking stalls.
City Manager Ryan Schroeder says an apartment complex just kind of makes sense. The site is right by a small commercial area, within walking distance of retail, restaurants, a library, and bus and bike routes. Plus, the soil on the course makes most of it pretty useless. It’s strewn rocky road-like with old construction debris, which makes it a real pain to excavate. It’s not a good place for sprawl.
Besides, West St. Paul, like most of the metro area, is starving for more homes. About 46 percent of its households are in rental properties, and most of its existing housing stock is getting “somewhat aged.”
“This will provide more of a housing option that is somewhat limited in West St. Paul,” he says.
A lot of people in the community don’t feel as enthusiastic about the idea. Weeks earlier, the planning commission received more than 50 letters from residents in opposition to the project, and the sheer number of public comments at the Monday night meeting kept everyone in their seats for hours on end.
Nearly everyone had a different reason for their opposition. Many claimed traffic on nearby Thompson Avenue was bad enough without new tenants, and they worried about their kids boarding the bus each morning. Some complained that cars were regularly hopping curbs and nearly taking out their garages. Some claimed the new residents and cars would be too noisy, or that homeowners’ property values would drop.
Others complained, specifically, about how it would disrupt their enjoyment of the vacant golf course.
“I can only think of it as a carbuncle sitting in the middle of a beautiful green space,” one commenter said.
But a good handful of residents specifically had a problem with the kinds of people who would be taking up residence in the complex.
“My opinion of residents of an apartment complex isn’t very good,” one commenter said. He claimed that existing renters never picked up their trash and didn’t care about their neighbors. Another commenter claimed that her house was “shot at” by some current apartment tenants behind her property.
“I don’t know what kind of people we have behind us, but you don’t know what kind of people are coming into these [new] places, either,” she said.
What it all came down to was that they wanted a different sort of project on the site: single-family homes, or townhomes.
It’s an argument that’s played out across the Twin Cities metro in recent months, especially in the wake of the 2040 Plan coming to the fore in Minneapolis. We’re in the middle of a metro-wide housing crisis (which is hitting renters and low-income residents the hardest), and single-family bastions continue to push back against denser development.
There were proponents of the project there that night, too, and they did agree with the naysayers on some points. Traffic on Thompson, they say, is a problem—especially for pedestrians—and it’s only supposed to get worse.
Schroeder says traffic studies project the corridor’s traffic density will shift from about 9,300 cars a day to about 13,000 by 2040, and the city is planning for more sidewalk and trail projects on Thompson and Oakland to make pedestrians safer before the new apartments are completed in 2021. New tax revenue from the apartments is supposed to pay for some of that.
But supporters don’t see that as a good reason to throw the plan out altogether. Some (both in the meeting and online) bristled at the idea that renters couldn’t be trusted to care about the places they live.
“Renters can be and are as invested in the community as homeowners are,” a commenter said.
Another said the whole affair reminded him of the time West St. Paul had a lengthy debate about whether the city should allow basketball in a public park years after alleged hoodlum activity prompted officials to confiscate the hoops. Nearby homeowners were broadly opposed to reinstalling them and disturbing the resulting peace. The hoops went back up despite their misgivings.
“We want to expand the tax base, right? How do we lure more businesses here?” the commenter said Monday. “We need to be doing what’s best for the community at large…. And these are fear-based thoughts.”