The Free Press, Mankato, MN

April 13, 2014

Parkway redevelopment getting greener

Recession slowed project, but investment interest blossoming

By Mark Fischenich
The Mankato Free Press

---- — It took a whole lot of imagination a decade ago to look east and west from the foot of the Northstar Bridge and think “parkway.”

To the west was a concrete plant that sprawled from beneath the Highway 169 bridge to a city water-treatment lime pit in the distance — dozens of acres of crumbling industrial buildings, a 110-foot-high ready-mix building, gravel lots, concrete pads, scattered tile and other unsold inventory from the century-old manufacturer.

To the east was a maze of sheds, garages, warehouses and more gravel lots. There was virtually nothing green in a nearly mile-long stretch of city that was to become — in the promises of private developers and city officials — a greenway.

Five years after the road called “Sibley Parkway” was completed, the broader greenway is far from finished but picking up some momentum. A four-story 60-unit apartment building that opened in January of 2012 was the first development to take the plunge. Several of what are expected to be 24 townhomes will be constructed on another parcel this summer. And an even larger apartment building, which is clearly designed to appeal to tenants interested in scenery, is tentatively planned for what was once perhaps the least scenic place in Mankato.

“I, probably along with many others, think the Minnesota River is just a great feature and asset here in Mankato and that we just under-utilize it,” said Justin Jackson, the developer of the new apartment building.

Jackson said he’s still determining the financial feasibility of the project, looking in particular at the cost of dealing with questionable soil conditions on the proposed location at the corner of Sibley Parkway and Rogers Street — the closest parcel to Sibley Park. If the project goes forward, its design is all about focusing on the river, the parkway and the large city park that will border it.

The building, which could approach $10 million to construct, would have 77 market-rate apartments (totaling more than 150 bedrooms) on four floors, each with a balcony and large windows to emphasize views of the river valley. A patio and fire pit on the river side of the building and roof-top decks would be shared by residents. Early designs also call for underground parking, a fitness center and other amenities.

“I like the concept,” said Jackson, who also developed the apartment complex adjacent to another Mankato park — Hiniker Pond. “I think it would be a nice addition to the area.”

If Jackson decides the project is feasible and the city gives its OK, construction could begin this year.

“I would hope to know within 60 days if we’re going to be moving forward,” he said.

Mankato Community Development Director Paul Vogel said the parkway is progressing according to plan, although probably not at the pace originally expected. The land between Highway 169 and Sibley Park was always anticipated to be primarily developed for residential use, with high-density apartments or condos on the riverside and townhomes or single-family houses south of the parkway.

But the planning and roadwork was approved when the housing market was booming, and the Great Recession hit just as the land was becoming available for development.

“During the period that infrastructure was being constructed, the crash hadn’t occurred yet,” Vogel said. “Obviously, there’s been a lag.”

The Sibley Parkway Apartments, which were built by a Slayton-based nonprofit to provide subsidized housing for young families with below-average incomes, ended the lag. The townhomes are being developed by Steve Rentz, who with Ken Hoffman owned the concrete plant land and are paying a portion of the parkway development costs via assessments. If the Jackson building moves ahead, there could be hundreds of new residents living along the parkway by the end of next year.

Development on the other portion of the parkway, between Highway 169 and Riverfront Drive, has been slowed by delays in moving city transit operations to an expanded city public works building at Hoffman Road and Victory Drive. That move should happen within the next year, allowing the city to prepare the municipal property between the parkway and the Cub Foods area for sale to developers, according to Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges.

“That area is probably not going to be made available until the fall of 2015,” Hentges said.

Still, some changes are occurring already on what is planned as the more urban and commercial end of the parkway. A Buffalo Wild Wings bar and restaurant is tentatively slated to be built on the corner of Riverfront Drive and Sibley Parkway, pending a check of possible soil contamination at a site that — over the decades — has been home to a refrigeration company, an auto repair service and a railroad yard.

Further down the parkway, a $4 million project by a local nonprofit will renovate and expand a former city bus garage into the new “Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota,” with the facility possibly opening as soon as April of 2015.

“We’re starting to get some movement,” Vogel said of the eastern end of the parkway.

That area will be zoned for mixed-use development, including retail stores, restaurants, offices or apartments. The city-owned land is adjacent to Cub Foods and to a strip mall, across the parking lot from Cub, that hasn’t been fully leased for many years. Vogel doesn’t think those vacancies indicate a lack of commercial interest in that part of Mankato, pointing to thriving nearby businesses such as the Cub Foods store and Kwik Trip convenience store.

“It’s obviously not because of location,” he said of the strip mall vacancies. “There must be some factor other than location that’s impacting turnover in that mall.”

Along with commercial uses, Vogel sees strong potential for housing on that end of the parkway. Apartments there would be attractive to people interested in living close to downtown because they’d also be near schools, the YMCA, city parks and trails, and shopping.

“It’s a good location,” he said.

Making that sentiment a reality was the point of the parkway project, which at the time was the city’s largest urban renewal effort since the 1970s. The $4.1 million in public infrastructure costs were financed with state grants, city funding and assessments against adjoining properties.

One part of the original plan hasn’t been accomplished and probably won’t be anytime soon — reconstruction of the Union Pacific railroad trestle that crosses the parkway near Highway 169 to make for a roomier and more attractive underpass. UP officials, who would have to approve any changes, have shown no interest in doing that.

So whatever other improvements occur along the parkway in coming years, drivers and pedestrians using the road and trail will continue to face a very narrow squeeze through the timber piers beneath the railroad tracks, Hentges predicted.

“I like to say it’s romantic,” he said of the trestle. “But that may be trying to put a lot of lipstick on a pig.”