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In Brooklyn Park, all eyes turn to mystery ‘Project Hotdish’

November 17, 2018

Jen and Jeff Geisinger knew the open field across the road from their Brooklyn Park neighborhood wouldn’t stay a pumpkin patch forever.

But they never dreamed of the project now pitched for that spot: a four-story, 2.6 million-square-foot fulfillment center that, if approved, could become the largest industrial building in the Twin Cities, nearly half the size of the Mall of America.

At City Hall, they call it “Project Hotdish.” At the Geisinger house, it’s “The Fulfillment Center That Shall Not Be Named” — or so reads a label on the three-ring binder holding their reams of research on the project.

Many residents have ditched the code name and insist it’s Amazon, which employs more than 3,000 people in Minnesota and whose local operations are quickly growing. City leaders and the developer haven’t named the Fortune 500 company behind the proposal, bound by an agreement not to disclose the prospective tenant.

The mystery project certainly resembles Amazon fulfillment centers taking shape across the country as the online retail giant expands its infrastructure in major metro areas, inching closer to where consumers live to cut delivery times. More than 175 fulfillment centers have been built worldwide, including one in Shakopee.

But Amazon has so far stayed mum on the Brooklyn Park project, and last week a company spokesperson declined to comment on it.

Brooklyn Park officials tout the 2,500 jobs and more than $5 million in tax revenue that “Hotdish” could serve up. The city has not been asked for any subsidies for the project, proposed for 72 acres in a business park near Winnetka and 109th avenues, close to Hwy. 169.

“It’s a proposal that delivers many of the things we’ve been looking for,” Mayor Jeff Lunde said.

Unhappy neighbors

But discontent runs deep in nearby neighborhoods and extends into nearby Champlin, echoing concerns in other locations where fulfillment centers have taken root.

Some fear the project will overwhelm local roads with traffic in an area dotted with schools and houses, especially if it opens in advance of a new interchange off Hwy. 169 and 101st Avenue.

Jen Geisinger, a real estate agent, can rattle off the project numbers by heart: 1,906 parking spaces, 214 trucks a day, 67 feet tall.

“It’s going to look like a skyscraper over here,” she said.

More than 1,600 people agree, having signed a petition against the proposal on the “Stop Project Hotdish” website Geisinger created.

The proposal has divided the Brooklyn Park Planning Commission, which voted in September not to recommend it. City Council members had expected to consider the project next week, but the developer has decided to delay action on it until sometime in 2019, according to city officials.

Neighbors are urging city leaders to look east, where one New Jersey town tangled with Amazon over traffic and found solutions.

Four years ago, a wave of enthusiasm ushered an Amazon fulfillment center into the bedroom community of Robbinsville, N.J. Situated between Philadelphia and New York City, the town of 14,000 wooed the mega-retailer, excited by the prospect of more than 1,000 jobs and the boost in tax revenue, Mayor Dave Fried said.

Ballooned in size

Then the holidays hit. City officials said they expected up to 1,500 employees, but that number swelled to about 4,000. Employee traffic choked streets and neighborhoods, especially in the neighboring community of Upper Freehold, Fried said.

So the mayor found himself threatening to shut down the facility only a year after it arrived and sue Amazon over traffic safety. The company responded by adopting staggered shifts and offering an employee shuttle service to cut congestion, Fried said.

“We took a very tough stance,” he said. “Amazon has been a good neighbor, and they did take it seriously and listen to us.”

His advice to other mayors? “Planning is the key,” he said. That includes, he said, understanding the scope of the project and then making sure “your infrastructure can support it.”

Such appears to be the case in Shakopee, where an Amazon fulfillment center opened in 2016. Traffic has largely been a “non-problem,” said Lisa Freese, Scott County’s transportation services director.

About a third of the size of the proposed Brooklyn Park project, the Shakopee facility has more than 1,500 employees. “The site is served by a pretty good set of supporting roadways and county road system,” Freese said.

Some north metro residents worry the same can’t be said of the Brooklyn Park site. Construction could begin next year on a $31 million interchange at Hwy. 169 and 101st Avenue, but the project is still about $8 million short in funding. City officials said they are looking to the developer to pitch in and hope that the interchange would open before the fulfillment center does.

Distribution facilities are not permitted in the area’s zoning, but city officials say a fulfillment center is different.

“A distribution center in our eyes is something where a package comes in and a package goes out, and nothing happens in between,” said Todd Larson, Brooklyn Park senior planner. On the other hand, he said a fulfillment center is more akin to a retail store where customers never venture, ordering online. Workers then collect items off the shelf, box them up and send them out for delivery.

Some neighbors don’t buy the distinction, calling it “a play on words.”

Champlin Mayor Ryan Karasek has described Project Hotdish as “the epitome of why people mistrust government.”

“This is something that is going to impact our community forever,” Karasek said. “And we got brought to the table at the last minute.”

5,300 vehicle trips daily

Not everyone in Brooklyn Park is opposed. “It’s something we should be excited about,” said Hassanen Mohamed, a Planning Commission member who backed the project and believes it has broad support outside the adjacent neighborhoods. “Is it right for that area? Absolutely.”

The 2015 development plan for the site envisioned seven smaller buildings rather than a single, much larger structure. But Dan Salzer of Scannell Properties said at a September meeting that a larger building wasn’t “that far off in terms of operation, and actually from a traffic perspective it’s a little bit less.” He said Project Hotdish would generate about 5,300 vehicle trips daily.

“It’s going to be chaotic even going to the post office,” said neighbor Jim Bortolussi, a financial adviser. “It’s going to kill our neighborhood.”

That’s what worries Jen Geisinger, who has already heard of neighbors who may move if the project wins approval. It’s the kind of neighborhood, she said, where people help one another through illness, watch neighbor kids and get together to play poker.

“This shouldn’t be anybody’s front yard, backyard or line of sight,” she said. “And 24 hours. Even the Mall of America closes down.”

Hannah Covington • 612-673-4751

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