New Forest Lake downtown plan would capitalize on lake, focus on pedestrians


Tom Haas has worked at Rolseth Drug in downtown Forest Lake for half a century.

The pharmacist and store manager, who started out sweeping the floors, has seen many changes downtown since 1972. He’s also seen a slew of redevelopment proposals for the city’s core.

Tom Haas, pharmacist and store manager at Rolseth Drug, displays a pill box from Petersen Drug, the forerunner to Rolseth Drug.
Tom Haas, pharmacist and store manager at Rolseth Drug, displays a pill box from Petersen Drug, the forerunner to Rolseth Drug. (Courtesy of Tom Haas)

But Haas, 67, said he thinks a plan commissioned last year by the Forest Lake City Council could be the one to “really reshape downtown.” Developed by HKGi in Minneapolis, the plan showcases the lake and would make downtown pedestrian-friendlier.

“Think of Stillwater or White Bear Lake,” Haas said. “It would be nice if people could walk downtown and go from business to business. I think (city officials) have more get-up-and-go this time. There seems to be more emphasis on getting things going. This time, it seems that there’s more interest in really getting something done.”

One of the biggest changes being proposed is a rebuild of the block where the defunct Vannelli’s by the Lake is located, at the southeast corner of U.S. Highway 61/Lake Street and Broadway Avenue. The developer is Forest Lake-based Gaughan Cos., which built Lighthouse Lofts, a $22 million, five-story mixed-use development on the north side of downtown.

Gaughan officials hope to build a similar five-story apartment complex, complete with rooftop restaurant and parking garage, where the Vannelli’s, TradeWins Sports and Lakes Area Bank buildings are located.

It’s a plan more than two decades in the making, said Dan Hebert, Gaughan’s senior vice president of commercial accounts.

“We bought this Vanelli’s property for redevelopment, and it has taken 20 years for the market conditions to be where they are at, and the other property owners to say, ‘Yeah, now would be a good time,’ ” Hebert said. “I think we’re on the road to get there.”

At the same time, city officials are working to create a vision and long-term investment framework for Forest Lake’s downtown district, said City Administrator Patrick Casey. Integral to this effort, he said, is identified action steps.

“You can get plans like that anytime, anyplace, anywhere, but what happens a lot of times, you get the plans, everybody reads it, and then it gets put on a bookshelf,” Casey said. “We really need to get to the next step: having them identify projects with dollar signs — some kind of an action plan, really.”

From the city’s perspective, “this will guide where our primary investments will be,” said Mayor Mara Bain. “What’s the city’s role in this? Some of it’s going to be individual property owners, some of it’s going to be the broader community partners, some of it’s going to be the city of Forest Lake. This will really help us to determine where the city should focus its efforts.”

CAPITALIZE ON THE LAKE

Ice fishing houses on Forest Lake, as seen from Lakeside Park in downtown Forest Lake, on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022.
Ice fishing houses on Forest Lake, as seen from Lakeside Park in downtown Forest Lake, on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

Bain, elected in 2018, wants the city to capitalize on the lake as a magnet. “When I walk downtown, it’s always astounding to me that you have a lake of this size with this much underutilized space,” she said. “People want to see the lake, they want to enjoy the lake, and people who are on the lake already want access to downtown. They want to be able to come in, dock their boats and go out for dinner.”

The city, population 20,000, is expected to add another 300 to 500 residential units this year, the largest development year in three decades, Bain said.

“We were a bedroom community for many years, but I think people are realizing we’re in a long-term hybrid environment now,” she said. “That has people changing where they choose to live and what they want available.”

Many commuters who used to drive to downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul each day for work and “stay for dinner or entertainment aren’t doing that anymore,” she said. “Because they are here, they want some options closer to Forest Lake.”

Last weekend, Bain and her husband walked across the frozen lake from their house to Rancho Loco Bar & Grill in downtown Forest Lake. “We really do enjoy the lake in all four seasons,” she said.

Rancho Loco in downtown Forest Lake.
Rancho Loco in downtown Forest Lake. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

The lakefront, however, is currently dominated by Lakeside Memorial Park and an adjacent city-owned surface parking lot, she said. “We’ve got this beautiful access to the lake, and it’s a parking lot,” she said during a walking tour last week. “An amenity needs parking, but nobody ever goes to an amenity for the parking.”

One option under consideration: building a parking garage on the west side of Highway 61 “with pedestrian amenities to allow for safe passage across,” she said. “That might mean we could use this space in a better way than using it for parking cars.”

Another part of the plan calls for taking out the turn lane on Highway 61, so that sidewalks on both sides of the street can be expanded, she said.

Under the HKGi plan, retail in downtown Forest Lake would be concentrated in a two-block walking loop on Highway 61 from the roundabout at Broadway Avenue to Second Avenue Northwest.

“There would be a cohesive retail loop within the broader downtown, rather than having retail peppered all over the place,” Casey, the city administrator, said. “There are limited things the city can actually do to enforce that, but there are some things we can do to encourage it. The broader downtown would be housing, recreation, restaurants.”

Some buildings, like those in the Vannelli’s block, may need to be demolished. “Some will hit the mark, but others we might say that the highest and best use is something else,” Bain said.

TOUR OF DECADES

This block in Forest Lake, which formerly housed Vanelli's restaurant and other shops, is slated for redevelopment as part of the city's plan to revitalize its downtown district.
This block in Forest Lake, which formerly housed Vanelli’s restaurant and other shops, is slated for redevelopment as part of the city’s plan to revitalize its downtown district. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

Walking through downtown is like taking a tour of development trends through the decades, according to Bain.

“We’ve got a building over here that was redeveloped in the ’80s, and a building that was redeveloped in the late ’90s over there,” she said. “It’s more of a tour of the decades than a historic destination. One of the challenges of the plan is creating some cohesion, because certainly redevelopment has happened in phases. I wouldn’t say today that we tell a cohesive story. You can see it piecemeal, project by project, but the end result doesn’t feel like a cohesive experience.”

Many of the buildings are vacant with “For Lease” signs in the windows.

“You’ve got all these buildings that nobody wants to rent,” Casey said. “Some are really tired-looking.”

An action plan will help city officials decide where and when they should focus their efforts over the next 10 to 20 years, including whether the city should acquire buildings and have them torn down for redevelopment, Casey said.

“All that costs millions of dollars, so until we get that plan and figure out what it is, you can’t decide on how you’re going to fund it, or where the money is going to come from — if it’s (tax-increment financing), if it’s a special tax, or whatever the case might be.”

City officials last year began exploring a plan to levy a local sales tax to capture some of the dollars spent by out-of-towners; that would help Forest Lake pay for needed improvements. Using sales-tax statistics from 2018 taxable sales, Forest Lake officials estimate the city could generate $1.6 million annually.

The city also recently completed studies on sanitary-sewage capacity and regional stormwater management. Property owners, for example, used to have to develop their own stormwater-management plans, a requirement “that was identified as problematic and prohibiting reinvestment,” Bain said. “There are property owners who can’t wait to do something with their properties, but they just don’t have the means to do so yet, so for the city to take some of that on helps to remove that barrier.”

Bruce Chamberlain, urban designer at HKGi, specializes in reimagining downtown areas. He and his firm have worked on projects in Victoria, Chanhassen, Mound, Excelsior, Hastings and Red Wing.

Downtown plans are “a mix of vision, strategy and implementation,” Chamberlain said. “We want to equip our clients with what they need to seize opportunities and implement the directives of the plan over time. That ‘seizing of opportunity’ part is really important because much of a downtown plan is recognizing when opportunities pop up.”

The first step in creating Forest Lake’s plan was building an online interactive “word wall” for area residents, business owners and city officials “to weigh in with their impressions of the place and their impressions of the community that is surrounding the place,” he said.



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