Planning for Cedar-77th underpass intensifies


A map shows the proposed layout of an underpass at Cedar Avenue that will connect Richfield to the airport. (Image courtesy city of Richfield)

Richfield has $18.5 million of the estimated $24 million required for an underpass project that expected to provide a major commercial boost to the city.

Construction on the 77th Street underpass at Cedar Avenue is scheduled to begin in 2019, City Engineer Jeff Pearson told the Richfield City Council during a June 27 work session, as he outlined the project’s timeline, budget and design.

As those considerations are addressed, the city prepares to commence a project that, according to City Manager Steve Devich, will be without equal for years to come, in terms of financial impact.

“There won’t be another area in Richfield, at least in the foreseeable future, that’s going to be as valuable to us for building the kind of commercial tax base that we’ve been striving to put together for so long,” Devich said of a project that has been on the city’s to-do list for 20-plus years.

Among project funding sources, Richfield has secured $10 million in bonding money from the state for construction and right-of-way acquisition, but for added flexibility, Pearson is hoping to use that money exclusively for construction.

“Using bonding money to purchase that right-of-way, it prevents the redevelopment or sale of that property for 20 to 30 years, or something like that,” Pearson said, adding that the city is in talks with Hennepin County for funds to acquire that property.

“We think we can get pretty close” to securing all of the right-of-way funding from the county, Pearson said.

The land that must be acquired for the project includes the Motel 6 property in the southeast corner of Richfield. Combining that land and vacating “old” Cedar Avenue should make for an enticing attraction for developers, Devich said.

“That would be sort of a signature sort of place for redevelopment in that corner,” he predicted.

The city is already hearing from suitors. “We’ve got a couple people interested in that site, but we’re trying to hold onto it until after construction,” Pearson said, explaining that the space will be needed for staging for the underpass construction.

But considering the anticipated level of interest in the redevelopment zone, Mayor Pat Elliott stressed that the city should act quickly to develop a vision for the corner and beyond.

“We might get an offer up front early on that has no mind waiting, so we need to have some idea of what our vision is for the city and those two parcels,” Elliott said.

“ … While I agree that nothing’s going to get started until the roadway’s done, I have a feeling we’re going to get a lot of people wanting to talk to us well before that.”

The city should be in a favorable bargaining position, a contrast with past redevelopment opportunities, Councilmember Michael Howard noted.

“The sort of phrase, ‘Beggars can’t be choosers,’ has been what we’ve been confronted with, but I think this development makes us choosers, so we should choose wisely,” Howard said.

Councilmember Edwina Garcia added, “If we started entertaining every little business of interest, I think we’d be doing ourselves a disservice.” Garcia called for a corridor-spanning vision instead of a piecemeal approach.

But as that vision materializes, enthusiasm for the change varies, according to Councilmember Maria Regan Gonzalez, who represents the east side. “Some are very anxious. Some are very excited to see redevelopment come to the east side,” Regan Gonzalez said.

As part of that change, a southward extension of Richfield Parkway will follow the current path of 18th Avenue and connect with 77th Street just west of the underpass site.

Richfield Parkway will travel along the eastern side of Washington Park, where plans call for increased on-site parking – needed, Pearson said, because the park should see more action due to the recent opening of courts dedicated to the game of pickleball, a sort of miniature tennis.

Also, while Richfield Parkway will leave less space in the park, there will be room for a second soccer field by repositioning the current field, Pearson noted.

As details like those are ironed out, urban planners will be dreaming about the possibilities of Richfield’s remodeled southeastern corner.

“We have an opportunity to think big here,” City Manager Steve Devich said. “We really do.”

Follow Andrew Wig on Twitter @RISunCurrent.