Seneca site sparks transit tension
Days after Olmsted County commissioners expressed a unified desire to see a transit hub created on the site of the former Seneca canning facility, city officials say flexibility crucial.
“I certainly understand the county may have had their own plans, because cities and counties and governmental entities do that, but it was not part of the discussion that it has completely switched and we did not have a choice,” Rochester Mayor Kim Norton said.
Earlier this year, the Graham Park area was identified as a preferred location for a hub southeast of downtown. Weeks later, county commissioners agreed to purchase the Seneca site, which is north of the county park.
The potential conflict came to light during this week’s Destination Medical Center Corp. board meeting.
County Board Chairman Jim Bier, who is also treasurer of the DMCC board, raised the issue during an update on plans to build a downtown transit circulator to connect two transit hubs, also known as mobility hubs and transit villages.
“When we were talking about Graham Park — I think some people knew, maybe not everyone knew — we were in negotiations with the Seneca property,” Bier said, noting the original intent was to use the 11 acres at 1217 Third Ave. SE to meet an emerging DMC priority.
Norton, who is the DMCC board vice chairwoman, said the county’s stance is a shift from a February board decision, which provided flexibility to an initial Graham Park recommendation, but didn’t rule out Graham Park.
That decision was made two weeks before county commissioners voted 5-2 to purchase the Seneca property for $5.6 million.
Nick Campion, the Rochester City Council’s representative on the DMCC board, indicated the price caused some pause, especially with the sale expected to close in late June.
“It sounds like the DMCC is now committed to using this property because of the condition the county is now in,” he said. “I don’t know that we have even agreed. I know I have never said that.”
Bier said land price shouldn’t be a factor in the discussion of whether Graham Park or the Seneca site is preferred. It remains undetermined who would own land at the proposed hubs and how ownership could be split, but Bier said the cost will be similar at either site.
“If the city wants to own the underlying property, I don’t see much difference between the Seneca property or Graham Park,” he said. “We would expect to be compensated one way or another.”
At this point, Bier said it would be hard for the county to back out of the Seneca purchase without a financial impact, but added that other options exist for the property.
When commissioners discussed the purchase in February, Commissioner Ken Brown said developers already had expressed an interest in working with the county.
“I have absolutely no doubt that we will get all, or more than all, of our money back,” he said, calling the purchase a “very strategic investment.”
However, Bier maintained that a transit hub is the first priority.
Exactly what that would look like remains unclear. While a conceptual design exists for a potential Second Street Southwest hub to replace an existing Mayo Clinic parking lot, similar drawings haven’t been developed for a southeast site.
Rochester Deputy City Administrator Aaron Parrish said he’d like to see conceptual plans created for the Graham Park and Seneca sites as discussions continue.
“I think it would be helpful for us to create a vision,” he said.
The transit hubs have been proposed as key connections for transit into downtown to reduce traffic congestion and parking pressure as the workforce grows throughout the 20-year DMC effort, but they also have been considered as sites for retail development and housing.
DMCC Board Chairman RT Rybak said the potential for housing was a reason for looking to the county, rather than other potential sites considered in Southeast Rochester.
“If the county is deeply engaged in it, we want our partner at the county to do it, especially if this is an opportunity to bring more affordable housing and really motivate the county,” he said, noting a final decision will require more study and discussion.
Patrick Seeb, director of economic development and placemaking of the DMC Economic Development Agency, said study continues, with a look at specific criteria — ridership, economic development, cost and economic input — to determine the best possible circulator route,
He noted a Third Avenue north-south route would likely be better for ridership numbers, but a Broadway route could spur added development.
“We don’t have the answers to this,” he added. “This is analysis that is underway.”
In the meantime, Norton said she hopes an agreement is possible. She encouraged DMC EDA and city staff to look for additional options, in case a deal isn’t possible with the county.
“We need fallbacks if negotiations do fail, because we don’t want to set this back years and years,” she said.