Lilia apartments
A five-story, 126-unit apartment building (shown) and four-story, 11-unit townhouse building are being proposed on the 5.7-acre site of the vacant River Bluffs Center along Highway 13 in Lilydale. Images by Elness Swenson Graham Architects

Once home to the Moose Country restaurant and several small shops along Highway 13, the long-vacant River Bluffs Center in Lilydale may find a second life as a new apartment and townhouse complex called the Lilia. 

In January, the Lilydale City Council approved a concept developed by Golden Valley-based Bigos Management to construct a five-story, 126-unit apartment building and four-story, 11-unit townhouse building on the 5.7-acre site. The planned unit development (PUD) will have the apartments on the southern end and the townhouses on the narrower northern end.

Designed by ESG, the buildings would be separated by a vehicular entrance and outdoor courtyard. Covered and surface parking would be located behind the buildings. Because of the lot’s narrow configuration, both buildings would face Highway 13.

Bigos Management described the development as “an upscale apartment community.” Since 1997, the company has owned and operated the Riverwood apartments on Highway 13 in Lilydale, just south of I-35E. Founded in 1981, the company manages around 9,500 apartments in more than 45 properties throughout the metropolitan area, including Galtier Towers, Lowertown Lofts and Kellogg Square in Saint Paul.

River Bluffs Center has seen development proposals come and go since closing in 2018. Property owners Joe and Linda Schaefer shuttered Moose Country and vacated the tenants in the adjoining shopping center after announcing they would sell the property to a senior housing company. When that fell through, Opus Group stepped in with plans for a five-story senior housing complex. Opus pulled out in May 2021, citing complexities in building on the site.

 

Lilydale Mayor Warren Peterson hopes the third time is the charm. The site has been difficult for developers because of its narrow depth and setback requirements from the river bluff and Highway 13.

“We’re glad they’re coming in,” Peterson said about Bigos. “It’s a difficult piece of property to develop and I think this is a plan that works. It’s great.”

 

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“We’re glad they’re coming in,” Mayor Peterson said about Bigos. “It’s a difficult piece of property to develop and I think this is a plan that works. It’s great.”

The council will approve a final plan for the site at a later meeting. Bigos also is seeking tax increment financing (TIF) to help pay for improvements to the property. Opus also had asked for TIF because of the property’s challenges.

Peterson said the new apartments would have tuck-under parking that roughly adds another story to the project. That is necessary since bedrock on the site makes an underground garage prohibitively expensive.

A PUD allows for a slightly taller building than Lilydale’s zoning code allows in return for more density. The apartment building, including the parking, will be 57 feet tall, or 7 feet above the city’s height limit. The townhouses will be 43 feet tall.

Despite the added height, planning commissioner and council liaison John Diehl said the apartment building would only rise slightly above the tree line. “You’ll see the top of the roof. It’s not like a 20-story building,” he said.

The shopping center has sat vacant for nearly four years and city staff said it has become a blighted fire hazard that should be demolished. “This property needs to be redeveloped. There’s no doubt about that,” Diehl said.

Water runoff from the site heads down the bluff and into the Mississippi River, he added, an issue Bigos will solve with holding ponds and storm sewers. “They’ve got this design so that there’s going to be no runoff toward the bluff,” Diehl said. “That’s huge.”

Dan Petrik, a land use specialist with the state Department of Natural Resources, agreed with Diehl that the building’s height will have a minimal impact on the property, which sits within the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area. Compared to other proposed developments for the site, this one moves buildings back from the bluff and has fewer impervious surfaces.

The developer made modifications to the project based on comments from the DNR, Friends of the Mississippi River and National Park Service, according to Petrik. “Certainly, this current project is a definite improvement over prior proposals for the site,” he said.

— Frank Jossi

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