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By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
Many transit agencies play an active role in transit-oriented development (TOD), as Progressive Railroading reported in its July cover story. But in Minneapolis, Metro Transit is taking a more hands-off approach and leaving the TOD planning largely up to the city — at least for now.That's because the city of Minneapolis hired its own TOD manager two years ago, when Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak decided the city should focus more on development near stations as the city's light-rail system continued to grow. Metro Transit opened the 12-mile Hiawatha light-rail service, now known as the Blue Line, in 2004 and now is constructing the 11-mile Central Corridor, or Green Line, which will run between downtown St. Paul and downtown Minneapolis. To help foster development around existing and future stations, the city hired David Frank, who previously was development director for Minneapolis developer and property management company Schafer Richardson. In his current role, Frank helps businesses along the light-rail line sell their property to developers that will build more dense, mixed-use developments and relocate the other businesses. Frank also does some "matchmaking," as he calls it, to line up developers with properties that would be a good fit for what they want to build. And, he plays a role in untangling complicated land issues or infrastructure problems.The city will aid new developers when and if it can. Minneapolis historically has prioritized infrastructure spending for public works projects such as streets, sidewalks and crosswalks based on vehicle counts and a Pavement Condition Index. Now, city officials have added development potential to the measurement mix."So if, for example, there are streets and sidewalks in a station area that aren't in good shape but there's a developer interested in building there, we have a way to prioritize that infrastructure spending," says Frank.City officials also have refined zoning codes to ensure that land around existing and future rail stations is primed for dense development."If you have a single-family zoning in a station area, it doesn't matter that the public has spent millions of dollars to bring transit there — developers can't do anything even if they wanted to," says Frank.The city's legwork is beginning to pay off. Last year, private developer Oak Properties completed a project on Metro Transit-owned land near Oaks Station. The development features about 100 apartments, structure parking and ground-floor commercial space. So far, there are "a couple" leases signed for the commercial buildings, Frank says."It's filling up nicely," he adds.Along the Central Corridor or Green Line, which is scheduled to open in 2014, development company Cornerstone Group is building a mixed-use development at the former site of sheet-metal fabricator Boeser Inc., near the future Prospect Park Station. The development will feature about 200 housing units and commercial space. Cornerstone Group is working with surrounding property owners to assume control of more sites in the station area."That way, someone can put a master plan into effect rather than do the project piecemeal," Frank says.The more master plan-type projects the city can attract, the better. TOD doesn't just play a role in Minneapolis' growth strategy — it is the growth strategy, Frank says."We are planning to grow by 100,000 people in the next decade or two. What we are not planning to do is annex additional property or add density to the existing single-family neighborhoods that are a huge percentage of the land area of the city," he says. "So that leaves some obvious places to add density, like along commercial corridors and especially along our transit corridors." As development surrounding the city's transit system begins to take hold, Frank expects Metro Transit's involvement in the projects will increase. The regional government is conducting a TOD strategic planning exercise to determine the extent to which the agency should become involved in station-area planning. "I predict [Metro Transit] will become more involved," says Frank. "But for now, the cities are set up here to do redevelopment work; the agencies are not."