Q: What is going on in the hilltop area around Bethany Lutheran College and the hospital? There seem to be many empty houses that rumor has it have been bought by one of those two entities. Will the neighborhood eventually be leveled and replaced with large buildings owned by BLC or the hospital? Will the people living in that neighborhood be apprised of plans in advance or will houses continue to be moved in the night or stand empty for months on end?

A: Two more houses were recently hauled away from the neighborhood bordering Bethany, and the issue came to the City Council last month when a citizen complained about a garage that was left behind — partly on city right of way. City staff promised to resolve that situation, but the broader trend is more complicated.

Mankato homeowners have the right to sell their homes without informing the city or seeking permission, City Manager Pat Hentges said. And both Bethany Lutheran College and Mayo Clinic Health Care System, the owner of the hospital, have the right to buy up homes and move them or raze them.

Redeveloping those properties, whether its constructing large academic and medical buildings or more parking lots, is a different story, however, Hentges said.

"They can certainly buy and they can certainly demolish. But before they reuse the property, they have to get our approval," he said. "I know there were two homes purchased recently and removed by Bethany. But before they can be used, the plans have to be approved. The same is true with Mayo."

That reuse also can include temporarily turning the homes into rental properties, and the city hasn't been inclined to allow Bethany or the hospital to rent houses if a street already has reached the maximum number of rentals allowed under the city code. The college and the hospital would prefer to go the rental route, putting the homes to use until campus expansion plans come to fruition sometime in the future.

"We would like nothing more than to be able to provide affordable housing," said Kevin Burns, spokesman for Mayo Health System in Mankato. "Under the city ordinance, we can't do that."

So, the two institutions would be taking a risk to buy wide swaths of land and, as the questioner put it, level the neighborhood, without talking to city officials about their plans. When it comes to parking lots, especially, city leaders have made known they don't want the hospital grounds to be continuously expanded to provide more room for cars.

"The council and Planning Commission haven't looked on that favorably," Hentges said, adding that multi-level parking ramps would be preferable to sprawling lots. "So we don't just have a sea of parking. Parking ramps seem to be the answer for reasonable, judicious use of land." 

The city governs land use in the area through an "institutional overlay district," and both entities have submitted master plans showing their vision for future growth.

The Bethany plan shows the potential of the campus spreading south of Marsh Street to the edge of Mulberry Street and Alexander Park. Homes along East Plum Street and Hinckley — along with the streets themselves — would be replaced with a building and a parking ramp.

"That's basically the only way we can go," said Daniel Mundahl, vice president of finance and administration, noting that Bethany is landlocked in other directions by the hospital and steep bluffs.

Homeowners within that Plum Street neighborhood have been specifically asked to contact the college first when they're considering selling, and the college isn't secretive about its long-term intentions, Mundahl said. 

"We've had neighborhood meetings," he said. "... We're not bashful about that, and our neighbors know that."

The pace of any expansion depends on the pace of enrollment growth. Bethany has the equivalent of 500 full-time students and has a goal of reaching 800. Funding for construction is the second factor.

"Are we going to plop a building down there in the next five years? No," he said. "If somebody gives us $20 million? Yeah."

Bethany is also in discussions with the Mankato Sports Commission about a potential indoor sports facility in the area that would be shared by the college and the community.

Mayo's master plan envisions the hospital campus encompassing all of the property bordered by Main Street on the south, Oaklawn Avenue on the west, Marsh on the north and Dickinson Street on the east. Parking lots would stretch all the way to Main Street with a new community health/ambulatory care/education building constructed on the northeast quadrant of the Main Street/Oaklawn intersection where more than a dozen homes now sit.

The hospital has no plans currently to expand beyond that footprint, and it isn't actively seeking to buy more properties because of the rental moratorium, Burns said. About a decade ago, however, hospital officials informed homeowners encompassed by the master plan boundaries that they were interested in buying when the owner wanted to sell. So the hospital will listen if those homeowners want to talk.

In the meantime, the hospital is taking care of the homes it owns but can't rent as it awaits the future day when more parking or a new medical building is needed. That includes heating, lawn-mowing and cleaning.

"At the end of the day, this is still a neighborhood," Burns said. "And we want to be good neighbors."

Contact Ask Us at The Free Press, P.O Box 3287, Mankato, MN 56002. Call Mark Fischenich at 344-6321 or email your question to mfischenich@mankatofreepress.com; put Ask Us in the subject line.

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