By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer
NORTH MANKATO — A proposed six-story, 108-unit, $17 million apartment complex comes before the ultimate arbiter of its fate tonight — the North Mankato City Council — after the city planning commission declined to make a recommendation and the city’s economic development arm voted in favor.
Supporters say the project will bring vitality to North Mankato’s Belgrade Avenue business district and finally fill a long-vacant lot that the city has been attempting to develop for more than two decades.
The size of the project and its proximity to a residential neighborhood, however, has sparked strong opposition from some neighbors. On Saturday, neighbors attempted to launch helium balloons 68 feet into the air to demonstrate the height of the complex.
“We want to do a visual for the neighbors here — what 68 feet looks like across from your property,” said Wheeler Avenue resident Barb Church, probably the most vocal critic of the project since it was proposed. “... It’s not the most scientific thing, but it does give you an idea.”
A light breeze left the balloons — attached to 68 feet of fishing line — less than vertical most of the time. But even at an angle, the point was made.
“I was right when I said they’ll never see the light of day,” Church said to one neighbor, gauging the angle of the sun and the shadows that would be cast by a 68-foot building.
Steven Heairet and Jackie Ellis, who live with their two children across Wheeler from the proposed project, said the council should reject the plan — which depends on city approval for a tax subsidy to help finance the project and for a conditional use permit because the building would be twice the height of the three-story maximum allowed by the city code.
The Planning Commission, which typically makes recommendations to the council on conditional use permits, declined to recommend approval or denial.
“It’s just mind-boggling that they’d even consider doing this,” Heairet said. “And that the council would even dream of letting them.”
Ellis said the value of their home would plunge because it would change the atmosphere from a quiet residential neighborhood to one akin to living in an apartment complex. Neighbors noted that the building would be built within a few feet of the street with no green space or transitional area between a high-density apartment building and single-family homes.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Ellis said. “In downtown St. Paul, this would be a beautiful building.”
Opponents of the project hope to bring a big crowd to tonight’s 7 p.m. public hearing, but backers of the development will also be on hand. The North Mankato Port Authority, which serves as the city’s economic development arm, voted 6-1 to approve a $225,000 loan to the developer and a $2.5 million subsidy through tax increment financing whereby additional property taxes generated by the building would be used to help cover the costs of the project.
Developer Van Moody has said that the increased size of the project was necessary to make it commercially feasible. And boosters of downtown development see the influx of new rental residents as potential customers of Belgrade Avenue businesses.
One important piece of the puzzle was still missing as of Friday, though. When The Free Press requested a copy of the commitment letter from the bank financing the project, interim City Administrator Mike Fischer said it hadn’t been received yet.
“I would guess that would play a part in the discussion Monday night,” Fischer said.