The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 21, 2014

N. Mankato passes downtown zoning overhaul

New rules to allow more types of development

By Dan Linehan
The Mankato Free Press

---- — NORTH MANKATO — The City Council approved a new zoning framework for downtown North Mankato that’s intended to spur development, including of apartment buildings, on a 3-1 vote Tuesday.

“It’s not about Marigold,” Mayor Mark Dehen said before voting in favor. “It’s about trying to make our city consistent with the code in surrounding communities, Mankato in particular …”

Nonetheless, that controversial apartment project was on several lips, if only as an example as the sort of high-density downtown development that can raise hackles. It required five variances that are now the subject of a lawsuit from nearby resident Barb Church.

“Historic downtowns allow moderate residential density,” Church said. “We shouldn’t be trying to wedge mega-projects on small plots of ground merely to collect more dollars.”

Still, as many people testified in support of the changes.

Belgrade Avenue resident Matthias Leyrer, a self-described student of new urbanism, suggested the city should encourage density to create a walkable community.

“We want dense development and the ability to leave our cars behind,” he said.

Still, he doesn’t want more apartment buildings downtown if they look like the current Marigold building, which he called a “hideous eyesore that doesn’t fit with the community.”

In addition to substantive criticism of the changes, there were also questions about timing — Why is a zoning change being contemplated while a comprehensive land use plan is being written?

“Why would the city want to ram these changes in now?” Belgrade Avenue resident Denny Savick said.

After eleven people testified, the discussion moved briefly to the City Council, where the opinions about downtown development have long been entrenched.

Councilwoman Diane Norland said the changes would help the city move ahead with the high-density housing it’s seeking for the Marigold site as well as accommodate similar projects atop the hill.

Councilman Billy Steiner agreed that it was time to move forward with these projects: “We’ve been working on these projects for years, a couple years.”

Councilman Kim Spears focused on the plan under development, asking why the city can’t wait until “we get some reconciliation in our comprehensive plan.”

The company drafting the plan, WSB & Associates, was consulted on the proposed changes and sent the city a brief letter saying that the proposal is “consistent with the direction outlined in the comprehensive plan.”

Dehen turned to ask City Administrator John Harrenstein about whether there was a reason to pass the changes now.

Harrenstein acknowledged there are no projects that are ready to go.

“I wish I could give you a developer’s agreement and say build it, and say pass it … I don’t. That’s not what this is motivated by.”

And he suggested that the changes would inform rather than inhibit the comprehensive plan.

Dehen seemed to agree that there was little need to wait until May, when the plan will be complete.

“It informs the plan and will give us a stronger plan going forward,” he said.

Councilman Bob Freyberg abstained, saying the process to make the changes has been flawed.

The process has been unusual, at least; the proposal started at the City Council, went to the Planning Commission, back to the council, and back to the commission before being re-sent to the council.

And Freyberg contended that the proposed revisions ignored a previous downtown plan, completed by I & S Group at a cost of about $18,000. At that time, the consultants didn’t contemplate zoning changes, except for a brief mention to “develop guidelines for new buildings to complement existing building,” he said.

As with many decisions in the past few years, the mayor had the swing vote.

He suggested that the discussion around development has created an “anti-business tenor” that has made businesses a little nervous about coming into town.

“We need to do what we can to try and make our community as competitive and reasonable a community as we can,” he said.

Though it wasn’t discussed, the package also included a slight loosening of high-density zoning elsewhere in the city, not just the downtown. It will essentially allow developers to add more units to a given piece of property.