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Development should follow southeast Metro commuter rail line

NEWPORT, Minn. - Commercial and residential development will follow a commuter rail line through the southeast metro, the project's planners say, but it will happen over decades.

The Red Rock Corridor Commission and planning firm Hay Dobbs displayed the latest plans for rail stations along the Red Rock commuter rail line in Cottage Grove, Newport and Hastings at recent public open houses, continuing to sell the project to area residents with concept plans that show significant development phased in over 30 years.

The updated plans show a transit station and minimal redevelopment in its immediate area a decade from now, and drastically altered neighborhoods three decades out.

Washington County transit planner Andy Gitzlaff said the hope is that "people started to grasp how it can develop over time and how this isn't all going to happen at once."

The proposed line would use existing track and would carry commuters from Hastings to Union Depot in St. Paul, with stops at Cottage Grove, Newport and Lower Afton Road along the way. It would be the Twin Cities' second commuter rail route after the North Star line that runs from downtown Minneapolis to north to Big Lake.

Rail stations in the area are planned for Cottage Grove's Langdon Village neighborhood on the west side of Highway 61, and in Newport on the site of an old Knox Lumber store near the confluence of Highway 61 and Interstate 494.

In the plans laid out before residents last week, those neighborhoods would be completely remade.

In Cottage Grove, the refined plans envision:

-- Office and retail buildings near the station;

-- High-density residential development within walking distance of the 600-foot long train platform;

-- Large open green spaces and a neighborhood plaza.

Newport's plans show dense, mixed-use development near the station, an enhanced Maxwell Avenue - now mainly an industrial thoroughfare - and connections from the station to the nearby Mississippi River.

The ambitious redevelopment plans will take time, however. Tom Dobbs, of the Hay Dobbs planning and architectural firm, assured residents at last Wednesday's meeting in Cottage Grove that "most (existing) pieces would stay" until market pressure builds for redevelopment.

Officials say the plans laying out each city's vision for the areas surrounding future transit stations will help strengthen applications for federal funds needed to move the proposed project forward.

But, first, county transit officials are working to ready the old Knox site in Newport for a park and ride facility set to be constructed in 2012. Officials hope the park and ride will help build ridership on the express bus and build a ridership base for the proposed rail line.

"The bigger focus in the near-term is -- in Newport in particular -- is getting that (park and ride) up and running... and bus service down to Hastings," Gitzlaff said.