Richfield asks: How many car dealerships are too many?

 

An illustration depicts the display cases that would be seen from Interstate 494 near Highway 77 if the city of Richfield approves plans for a Jaguar and Land Rover dealership. It would virtually neighbor a new Audi dealership, and stand about 2 miles east of Richfield Bloomington Honda, which was recently reconstructed and expanded. (Illustrations courtesy city of Richfield)

A third automotive dealership wants to set up shop along the 494 strip in Richfield, but municipal gatekeepers are wondering if that’s one too many.

Morrie’s Automotive Group is proposing a 34,000-square-foot Jaguar and Land Rover dealership in the southeast corner of Richfield, on the 3.2-acre site currently occupied by Adler Graduate School, at 1550 East 78th Street. The location virtually neighbors a new Audi dealership, and is two miles east of the recently reconstructed and expanded Richfield Bloomington Honda – all in a corridor zoned for mixed use.

The question, then, is how many more auto dealerships can be built before the area no longer fits that descriptor, according to Richfield Community Development director John Stark.

“(City) Staff’s opinion is that at some point in time when you get a preponderance of one type of use, it is no longer a mix,” Stark said, specifying that “staff don’t have 100 percent comfort level with” a third dealership along the stretch.

A proposed Jaguar and Land Rover dealership is shown from the northeast perspective. (Illustrations courtesy city of Richfield)

The city, though, already made special exception for a dealership when the Audi project was approved, argued Peter Coyle, the land-use attorney representing Morrie’s.

When the Audi project was approved, “the city actually modified its comprehensive plan and its zoning to accommodate the facility,” Coyle told council members and planning commissioners.

In explaining Morrie’s decision to pursue the Richfield location, he referred to the city’s finding that an auto dealership is acceptable for the area. “We’re not pursuing this willy-nilly, just on the blind assumption that this would be acceptable to you,” Coyle said.

An area of opportunity

Without dismissing the dealership proposal outright, the city is choosing to wait and see what other redevelopment opportunities materialize, as plans move forward for a Cedar Avenue underpass on 77th Street that is expected to revitalize Richfield’s southeast corner over the next decade-plus.

Councilmember Michael Howard concluded, “I just think that we need to be very mindful of the opportunities that are going to be presented, and probably go to our community and have more conversations than we have had in the past about this corridor, in an area where we haven’t had very many development opportunities in the past.”

Councilmember Maria Regan Gonzalez, whose ward includes the proposed dealership site, voiced a desire to imbue the area with Richfield’s oft-cited “urban hometown” atmosphere. “At this point I don’t feel like I have enough information to be supportive or not of this,” Regan Gonzalez said.

Councilmember Edwina Garcia urged for a long-range approach. “Are we going to be happy with this in 25 years? Let’s really take a cautious look,” Garcia said.

But the city shouldn’t expect to see a rehash of the stretch of auto dealerships that used to characterize Richfield’s 494 corridor, project architect Brannin Gries said.

‘Timeless, modern and contemporary’

The Jaguar-Land Rover dealership, Gries explained, “will look much like an office building, not like the dealerships of old where you have 7 acres of parking outside. The parking will be inside.” Plans include an approximately 20,000-square-foot glass-paneled parking ramp, he said.

The fact that dealerships look different these days wasn’t lost on Mayor Pay Elliott. “I’ve been here long enough to know what it looked like from Penn to Lyndale when it was auto row. That wasn’t particularly attractive, but you could get hot dogs and popcorn every Saturday,” Elliott said, joking about the classic promotional tactic.

Due to design elements, the dealership would be the largest facility investment Morrie’s has ever made, at $325 per square foot, according to Morrie’s project representative Lynn Robson.

Gries called the design “timeless, modern and contemporary.”

Taxes and the fate of Adler

Another factor is money. The new dealership would pay $750,000 to $800,000 in taxes per year, on a property that currently generates no tax revenue for the city.

Elliott said that boon is a “huge incentive … But I think regardless of whatever goes in we’re going to see a huge increase in the tax base.”

The fate of Adler Graduate School, should the dealership displace it, is unclear due a confidentiality agreement between Adler and Morrie’s, according to Councilmember Simon Trautmann. “We would love to be able to have that conversation with the graduate school,” Trautmann said.

While Richfield leaders stopped well short of supporting the dealership project, Elliott assured the Morrie’s representatives that their proposal is not a lost cause. He deemed it “just a little early in the process” as he called for more time to make a decision.

Any hesitation has nothing to do with the developer itself, according to Stark. “It’s been great working with this team I think they have a great proposal,” he said.

If Morrie’s had made the proposal before Audi did about two years ago, “my suspicion is we would have a Jaguar and Land Rover dealership now,” Stark said, “and we would be telling Audi the same thing. So it’s not specific to these particular users.”

Follow Andrew Wig on Twitter @RISunCurrent.