When Will Umore Be More?

When Will Umore Be More?

Can the University of Minnesota’s multidecade project to turn 5,000 acres of land into a sustainable community succeed—or will it just make a lot of money mining gravel and sand?

In the heart of Dakota County, where the southern rim of the Twin Cities metro area touches the open prairie, the dead-flat ground south of County Road 42 and west of U.S. Highway 52 rises gradually and folds into a succession of low hills as the city of Rosemount transitions into Empire Township. From this high ground the view to the north across a patchwoork of fields and woodlots is dominated by a jungle gym of pipes, storage tanks, and exhaust stacks that is the Koch Industries refinery, a major producer of petroleum-based fuels, asphalt, and fertilizer components.

TIMELINE:
UMORE PARK

 

1850s: Government agrees to pay Mdewakanton band of the Dakota Nation $1.4 million over 50 years to secure ownership.

1860s-1941: Used extensively by Irish immigrant farmers and their descendants.

1947: University of Minnesota purchases the land for $1 to develop on it a research facility for investigating new practices in agriculture, medicine, and aeronautics.

1948-1970s: U of M operates site as Rosemount Research Center and leases land for farming. Eventually, it is determined there are small but significant pockets of contaminants on portions of the land, including mercury, arsenic, lead, and PCBs.

1986: 10 acres declared a Superfund site; a seven-year cleanup project follows. Two acres flagged as too contaminated to ever be developed; others ok’d for use.

Today: Awaiting conversion to gravel pit and eventual town site.

(More on UMore Park’s history can be found at the end of this article.)

This panorama was altered in the fall of 2011—literally and figuratively—when the University of Minnesota opened a $7.9 million wind-energy research station on a corner of the 5,000 acres it owns just south of the refinery. The station features a 426-foot meteorological tower and a soaring 2.5 megawatt wind turbine, producing a juxtaposition of the old-and-dirty with the new-and-clean that is impossible not to notice, and that is also, for the moment, all there is to see of a clash between the past and a future the university plans to create here.

For now, however, the only certainty is that one-third of this land—the western portion closest to property already occupied by homeowners in Rosemount—will be mined for gravel. The university expects to begin collecting annual mining revenues of $1 million to $2 million by the end of 2013, and the number could rise to $3 million to $5 million a year as mining continues for 25 years or more. Proceeds will go toward a legacy fund to support U of M academics.

The much bigger goal, however—one so big and dreamy that it is possible almost none of what you are about to read will ever come to pass—is for visitors to this land 30 years from now to find a master-planned community of 30,000 people living in a sustainable, environmentally friendly town that produces its own energy, while creating zero waste. Light industry and commercial and retail ventures will prosper harmoniously among a healthy and vigorous citizenry who enjoy walking to work, have the benefits of affordable local health care, and take their ease among ample green spaces where they can contemplate the placid waters of a chain of man-made lakes.

It ought to be called Zenith or Tranquility or something evocative like that, but it isn’t. It’s called UMore Park—a clunky but high-minded acronym for the University of Minnesota Outreach, Research, and Education park. If it works, it won’t cost the university anything and may help offset reduced appropriations and rising tuitions. If it doesn’t work—well, it won’t be the first time an idea for this piece of Minnesota has gone nowhere.

This latest land use plan for UMore Park has been in place since 2008, when the university’s Board of Regents approved a concept developed by a community planning company called Design Workshop. The proposal emphasizes energy-efficient buildings; on-site energy production from solar, wind, and biomass generation; health and wellness facilities that reinforce active lifestyles; reduced dependence on automobiles; promotion of lifelong learning opportunities; careful stewardship of local ecosystems; and an “eco-industrial park” comprising a diverse mix of manufacturing and service businesses. All of this will be carried out by private developers, but in accordance with the university’s vision and with the approval of the City of Rosemount and Empire Township. And as mining operations are completed in phases, excavated areas will leave behind lakes and lowlands that will be graded—not back-filled—for incorporation into the rest of the development as it spreads westward.

Leaders in Rosemount and Empire Township are cautiously optimistic. “Our city is a little removed from the downtowns,” says Kim Lindquist, Rosemount community development director. “So we’re excited about the prospect of bringing jobs to this area.” Among the first developments they hope to see would be a business park consistent with UMore’s sustainability goals, she says. “What’s most attractive is that instead of building homes for people to commute from every day, we’d be putting workers where they can also live.”

First steps first, however. Based on a 2007 geologic assessment by ProSource Technologies, the vein of sand and gravel here is rich and deep. As would be expected, local residents have expressed concerns about the noise, traffic, and dust created while mining these resources. But there is also a widely held view that mining makes sense as a first step in developing UMore.

Empire Township Town Board Chair Terry Holmes says the view in his community has always been that “the gravel should be taken out of the ground” before anything gets built on it, and he says he’s glad to see that university has decided to proceed that way. “It is their land,” Holmes says. As for the eventual development of the rest of UMore Park, he says candidly it’s not something many people even think seriously about. “Growth does happen. But this is a very long-term proposition. I think it will be 30 or 40 years before our township sees any effect from what happens there. We’ve seen plans for this property come and go. Will this one work? Who knows?”

Many Plans, No Initiative
So it’s pie in the sky, but what’s not to like? The university has been stuck with this land for decades, and divesting itself of it now, at the bottom of a long slide in real estate prices, is out of the question. When the university hired a consultant to evaluate the UMore property in 2006, it was told that selling the land to developers in marketable parcels would take 15 or 20 years—and that was when the market was strong. Even as agricultural land, the property might theoretically be worth only $50 million, using the high end of Minnesota farmland values last year. That’s roughly half of the revenue that mining alone is expected to generate.

In a way, the current plan for UMore Park has become inevitable. “We reached a juncture with this land where we really couldn’t figure what else to do with it,” says Robert Jones, the university official with responsibility for the project. “We didn’t think selling it was prudent or even feasible. We’ve owned it for decades and we finally have devised a more thoughtful purpose for it.”

One thing for sure: The university will build someth ing and see if people will come to it. “We’re a landowner,” says Carla Carlson. “We’re not a developer. Everything in this plan depends on the market.” Carlson, executive director of UMore’s Academic Initiatives office and vice president of operations for UMore Development LLC, adds that the university is in an enviable position even as hard times weigh heavily on real estate markets. Because the university pays no taxes on the property and carries no debt on it, it can be patient.

What to do with this land has vexed the university for decades. In 1974, the state legislature asked the university to determine whether it still had any use for the property. The school still conducted agricultural research there, but the rest of the property seemed of little value to anybody. Urban planners suggested development demand would not reach the area for many years.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the property was evaluated as a potential site for a new metropolitan airport. When it was decided to instead expand and improve the existing airport, the university tested several ideas for the land that turned out to be unpopular. One proposal was to retain a few thousand acres for agricultural research and to break up the rest for sale to residential developers, who were building into the county at a faster pace than had been predicted. But local residents pushed back against further sprawl. Another plan, to build a couple of golf courses and conduct turf research in the more undisturbed Vermillion Highlands, met even stiffer opposition from environmentalists and the Department of Natural Resources.

In 1997, university president Mark Yudof announced the school would discontinue efforts to sell the land and formed a task force to undertake a wholesale re-examination of what could be done with the property. The upshot was a recommendation to consolidate research activities and look for ways to partner with the private sector on new research and academic initiatives. The university’s Board of Regents approved this plan in 2001 and renamed the property UMore Park. But three years later, that plan was scrapped—leaving UMore with a name but no mission.

Yudof’s successor, Robert Bruininks, ordered another study, this one aimed at finding a way to make UMore Park a source of income for the university, which had lately seen its funding trimmed by the Legislature. As residential development in Dakota County continued to speed toward UMore Park, a story in the Star Tribune described the university’s white-elephant tract of land as being in the “eye of the needle” in south metro expansion. In 2006, the Board of Regents asked for outside help and hired the consulting firm Sasaki Associates of Watertown, Massachusetts, to develop yet another plan.

A university committee examined three scenarios for the property. One: Hold it and do nothing. Two: Sell it off in pieces to developers at wholesale prices. Three: Design a master-planned, “knowledge-based,” sustainable community of 20,000 to 30,000 residents. This last option came with a strong endorsement as the best possible use for UMore Park and the Board of Regents recommended that step one should be to “extract valuable gravel and monetize the extensive on-site concrete resources on the property.”

Which is how the university came to be in the sand and gravel business.

The Town at the End of the Rainbow
Since fiscal year 2006, the university will have invested about $10 million by the end of fiscal year 2013 in its current efforts to do something with UMore Park. Big-ticket items have included an annual budget of slightly less than $1 million to staff UMore’s two operational units, the Office for Academic Initiatives and UMore Development LLC; $2.1 million for an environmental impact statement for sand and gravel mining; and $900,000 for a remediation study of contaminant problems on the property. Carla Carlson says UMore Park has recouped much of the cost of the environmental review from its mining partner, Dakota Aggregates.

UMore Park plansA master-planned, “knowledge-based” sustainable community is the ultimate goal for UMore Park. Consultants told the U that such a community could one day support 20,000 to 30,000 residents. A theoretical design for such a community is above.

UMore Park, though still a huge piece of land, is considerably smaller than the original 8,000 acres acquired from the War Department in 1947 and 1948 (see  sidebar at the end of this article). Small bits have been sold off at times, including a 64-acre tract on the north side of the property for the Dakota County Technical College. The big divestiture came in 2006, when the university agreed to transfer about 2,800 acres of the Vermillion Highlands to the state in exchange for the state’s participation in the construction of TCF Bank Stadium. The university will continue to oversee that land, which now includes a winding 11-mile horse and Nordic skiing trail, in partnership with the DNR for another 20 years, and retains rights to conduct research in perpetuity.

UMore Park deserves the benefit of the doubt as a noble experiment, says George Karvel, a longtime development consultant, property guru, and real estate professor at the University of St. Thomas, who believes what the university is doing at UMore is a completely rational attempt to realize value from an asset. But he cautions that history shows that when it comes to land use, the immediate purpose is sometimes the only purpose.

“If you want to operate a gravel pit, you might suggest some greater benefit that will result later on so that you can proceed to dig a big stinking hole in the ground. But nobody has any idea what market conditions are going to be in 25 or 30 years,” Karvel says. “A master plan is just so many scratches on a piece of paper: It sounds like a great idea and you offer it in complete sincerity, but with the more practical hope that you get your gravel pit.”

Rosemount Mayor Bill Droste would not address the question of whether mining at UMore Park is contingent on any promise of residential and commercial development to come later. He does concede the prospect of an environmental cleanup of other parts of UMore Park is an attractive idea. “It’s been contaminated for more than 60 years, so cleaning it up would be a good thing,” Droste says. “What the university has in mind for a planned community would, if it’s done well, be a huge asset. If it’s not done well, it’ll just be another suburban development.”

Pulling Pie out of the Sky
The big gamble at UMore Park is the belief that what the university envisions as the community of the future and what the market wants will intersect at some point. Nobody knows this for sure, but Tom Fisher, dean of the U’s College of Design, thinks it’s likely. Fisher says the future will bring a different set of demands for new options in housing and commercial property, as the numbers of small businesses, entrepreneurs, and self-employed people continue to increase: “A lot of those kinds of people want the places where they live and where they work—or even where they make things—to be in close proximity. They don’t want to live in one place and work somewhere else far away.”

By putting homes and workplaces close together—or even combining them into “live-work housing”—a planned community can simplify its transportation infrastructure, trading roads and parking lots for walking paths and parks. Similar economies are to be found, says Fisher, in the greater efficiencies of green energy generation and waste disposal, as well as local food production. The critical departure will be the move away from building big civil-engineering projects like storm sewers, fossil fuel power plants, and freeways that are needed to support traditional communities. “Green infrastructure costs less and produces greater amenities,” says Fisher. “So you save money. And as you get to urban scale, things get much more affordable.”

Given how weak the housing market is today, and is expected to remain for the foreseeable future, Fisher says the university will likely not start out building houses. When the time finally comes for that, he believes some concepts that seem impossible today will be doable. “For example, maybe we could find a way to put residents of this community into the university’s health insurance plan. Now that’s just an idea. But it’s the kind of thing we are thinking about. Ultimately, what we want to do is take the concept of sustainability out of the kooky, left-wing corner it’s in and show that it makes economic sense,” Fisher says. The plan for UMore Park will have to adapt to changing economic conditions, as well as to political change inside the university. But, he says, the “core vision” should be durable.

“What we don’t want to do,” Fisher says, “is just sell this land to developers to do the same thing they do everywhere. That would be a lost opportunity.”


SUSTAINABILITY AS MORE THAN A BUZZWORD

 

Many of the features of a sustainable community the University of Minnesota hopes to see materialize at UMore Park are gaining traction in Europe, and to a lesser degree in small domestic projects. Right now, nothing approaches the scale and ambition of UMore Park, though one project at the University of California, Davis has some things in common. Called West Village, it opened last fall when about 800 students moved into apartments that are the first phase of what is billed as the largest “zero net energy” planned community in the country.

Once completed, this 130-acre corner of the campus will be home to 3,000 students, faculty, and staff living in 662 apartments and 343 single-family homes. The development is a response to an expanding university, and reluctance by the City of Davis to see expansion off-campus.

Built with super-efficient materials and techniques, West Village only uses about half the energy of a comparable community built to code. It’s powered by solar panels and eventually a “biodigester,” so that the community expects to produce as much power at it consumes. The project has so far cost nearly $280 million, with the university investing $7.5 million via federal and state research grants, plus another $17 million of its own money for infrastructure improvements. Its private developer partner contributed the balance. Over time, money the university earns from leases on apartments and homes will repay its investment.

There’s already a similar effort to achieve zero net energy consumption at the University of Minnesota’s ultra-green campus at Morris, where two 1.6 megawatt wind turbines generate enough electricity on windy days to power the school, with enough left over to sell to Otter Tail Power. The second of the two turbines was commissioned last year and is a self-supporting project that will generate enough electricity over the next 20 years to recoup its $4 million price tag.

Additional heating, cooling, and electricity generation on campus comes from a biomass gasification plant that uses corncobs as fuel. Morris Vice Chancellor for Finance and Facilities Lowell Rasmussen says the school spends $300,000 a year on corncobs—less than what it would spend for the same energy from natural gas, funds that would also go out of state. “Our vision,” says Rasmussen, “is to ultimately produce all the energy we use.” Morris also has an aggressive water conservation program on campus, and its food vendor is contractually obligated to buy locally whenever possible.

 

 

UMore Park: Land With a Dirty History
 

The original settlers of this land, which is bounded on three sides by the Minnesota, Mississippi, and Vermillion rivers, were, of course, its first residents—the Mdewakanton band of the Dakota Indians. European explorers, who visited the region as early as 1680 when Father Louis Hennepin came through, saw it as an untamable place where the Indians had “unlimited and undisputed sway and control of all those vast prairies.”

The land was at least theoretically acquired by the United States in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase, but in the 1850s it took a protracted negotiation and $1.4 million—to be paid out over 50 years—to seal the deal with the Mdewakanton.

White settlement was dominated by Irish immigrants at first, who steadily cleared and cultivated the land. Wheat, which was easy to grow even for novice farmers, became the dominant crop. But continuous wheat production depleted the soil, and farmers spent decades struggling to diversify crop and livestock operations.

Then, in 1942, the War Department seized nearly 12,000 acres of southern Rosemount and northern Empire Township, buying out and evicting 84 farm families in the space of two months. The land had been chosen as a site for a new munitions complex, the Gopher Ordnance Works, which was going to produce gunpowder for the war effort.

Bad weather and materials shortages caused the project to fall behind schedule. Just before it was to go into operation in 1943, the plant was mothballed and further construction halted. About 5,000 acres were leased back to farmers. As the war wore on, the plant was partially completed and there was limited gunpowder production there from early 1945 through the end of the war.

With no further use for it, the government put the property and plant up for sale as war surplus. It was thought to have a market value of slightly less than $10 million. But state and local government agencies were given priority in bidding on such properties, and when the University of Minnesota stepped forward with a plan to turn it into a research facility for investigating new practices in agriculture, medicine, and aeronautics, the government ended up selling it to the university for one dollar; the deal closed in 1947. One of the dormant plant’s most enticing features were several huge air compressors that the university wanted to use to power wind tunnels for supersonic aerodynamics research.

University research activities continued at the site for years at what was known as the Rosemount Research Center, but by the 1970s these had begun to ebb. Many of the ordnance works structures were dismantled, though remnants of the plant remain to this day—including the five side-by-side smokestacks from its central power plant, ghostly relics rising against the sky that can be seen from Highway 52.

A less visible but more consequential legacy is in the ground itself, at the surface and in shallow subsoils. Scattered across the property—but concentrated in and around the operating sites of the ordnance works and research center—are pockets of contaminants that include mercury, arsenic, lead, PCBs, PAHs (poly-aromatic hydrocarbons, which are common byproducts of fossil fuel use), and dinitrotoluene (DNT), a component of cannon powder. There are also asbestos issues at existing and demolished building sites. Because the ordnance works operated only briefly, most of this mess is no worse than what would be found in a typical urban “brownfield,” vacant property formerly in industrial use.

Cleaning up this kind of contamination has become routine. “It happens all the time. I’ve made a career of it,” says Janet Dalgleish, a public health specialist with the university’s Environmental Health and Safety office, who helped coordinate a recent remediation investigation of UMore Park. Cleanup here will not be done in one huge program; instead, sites will be remediated on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the kind of development proposed in each instance.

Some residents of the area, recalling that chloroform was discovered in wells near the property in 1984, have expressed concern about the effect on groundwater of leaving contaminants on the property to await cleanup until specific development projects begin. The chloroform problem was resolved years ago, and Dalgleish says the contaminants they’ve found remaining on the property do not migrate readily to groundwater and were not found in any of the monitoring wells that were drilled during the latest remediation investigation.

The EPA designated about 10 acres of the most-contaminated portion of the property as a Superfund site in 1984, and the state followed suit. A seven-year cleanup commenced the following year, and that part of the property is now checked by the EPA every five years. Slightly more than two acres of the Superfund site are considered too contaminated to ever be developed; the remaining portion is suitable for industrial purposes.

At a joint meeting of the Rosemount City Council and Planning Commission in May, UMore Park officials said there are no conditions anywhere else on the property that would prevent development there. Gary Krueger, Superfund project manager at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, concurs. He says UMore Park is not as contaminated as the notorious Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant in Arden Hills. “But it’s not a clean piece of property either,” says Krueger. “Some cleanup will be needed.”
 

 

William Souder is a Twin Cities writer specializing in environmental issues. His latest book, On A Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson, will be published in September.