Olmsted County commissioners don’t feel bound to hold the former Seneca Foods site for a potential “transit village” to connect to downtown.
“We are going to look at the strategic nature of (the property) and decide what to do with the property ourselves,” Olmsted County Commissioner Ken Brown said.
The county purchased the 11 acres at the intersection of 12th Street and Third Avenue Southeast last year for $5.6 million with the expectation that it would be considered for a potential hub connecting two mixed-use developments with a dedicated rapid-transit line through downtown Rochester.
Specific plans, however, failed to get enough Rochester City Council support to move forward.
“There were four hard noes, and I don’t think the mayor liked it either,” council member Michael Wojcik said of a proposal to create a parking structure at the Seneca site and link it via skyway to a transit station in Graham Park.
Council member Patrick Keane said he was part of the opposition, citing concerns connected to railroad tracks that divide Graham Park and the Seneca site, which would also include housing and retail development.
Instead, the council opted for a single transit village on Mayo Clinic’s west parking lot along Second Street Southwest. It would include private and public parking while being served by a dedicated transit line running along Second Street to Civic Center Drive.
The change reduces the estimated cost of the project from $203.7 million to $107.4 million, and city officials say it increases chances for federal funding.
Several county commissioners said this week they feel council members pulled the rug out from under them following discussions regarding the Seneca site.
“We wasted a lot of time, and we agreed to many of their principals to be basically ignored,” County Board Chairman Matt Flynn said.
Commissioner Mark Thein said he doesn’t believe the council had ill intentions.
“It’s the city council’s prerogative to do what it thinks is best for the city of Rochester, and it may not always coincide with what we think is best as the county board,” he said. “That doesn’t mean their decision was done in malice.”
Flynn and Brown had held meetings with Wojcik, Keane and City Council President Randy Staver before the council decision was made, and Brown said he had expected the plan to move forward.
“We thought we had three votes,” he said of the three council members. “They just needed to secure one more vote.”
Wojcik and Keane said nothing was definite.
“I’m a little surprised that their view was that we had an agreement,” Keane said.
Wojcik said he understands why the commissioners feel slighted but said the Seneca location could be part of a future transit project stretching north and south along Broadway Avenue.
Parrish also indicated the delay provides time for a plan to develop around the former Kmart and AMPI sites.
“We can better understand what the landowners want to do there, we can better understand what the neighbors would like to see there, and see if it integrates with this vision for a rapid transit extension,” he told the council during its May 4 meeting.
Olmsted County Administrator Heidi Welsch said it also means the county will look at other options.
“You can’t just wait around forever,” she said.
The county is moving toward demolition of the former canning facility, which Welsch said will highlight possibilities for the site.
“Everything the board has discussed about what could go into a village there still can happen, so there still can be housing and retail,” she said. “We have a lot of interest from a variety of different people in the community for a lot of different uses.”
At the same time, she said doors remain open.
“We would never close the door on the city,” she said “They are important partners. They are one of our cities in this county, and the county is not going to close the door on any of our cities.”
Parrish agrees the potential for a future transit-related partnership exists, noting Destination Medical Center plans call for more parking than will be supplied under the current effort.
“We continue to remain open to exploring strategies that might end up in a productive partnership with the county,” he said.