MANKATO — With brick-and-mortar retail waning, Mankato officials are envisioning an “urban village” around the Hilltop Hy-Vee in an area once reserved for future commercial stores.
Three large apartment buildings have been proposed on the two remaining vacant lots in the area as a pair of developers ask the city to rezone the area away from commercial uses.
“I think the reason that they have made this request is fairly obvious. We’re not going to be building any more big-box retail stores, maybe even not any little-box retail stores,” said local commercial real estate agent Dan Robinson, representing developer Art Petrie when his development plan first came to the city. “And they would like to use the property instead of letting it sit there.”
Robinson made those comments to the Planning Commission nearly 10 months ago. With the outlook for retail only deteriorating since then, Petrie is moving forward with plans to construct this summer a pair of 48-unit apartment buildings on land he owns immediately north of the Hy-Vee/Office Depot buildings.
City staff, the Planning Commission and — as of this week — the City Council concur with the rezoning request but are encouraging Petrie to refine his proposal to better reflect the “urban village” concept favored by the city — a community that allows tenants to easily walk or bike to nearby stores, restaurants, recreation areas and even jobs.
In the future, the concept could expand to the large parking lot left vacant by the closing of Gander Mountain and Gordmans stores that were the most recent unsuccessful occupants of a 117,000-square-foot building constructed as a Kmart store in 1994.
“Definitely, I think there’s a lot of potential for that as that area is repositioned and redeveloped,” said Community Development Director Paul Vogel.
There’s evidence of strong interest among apartment dwellers in Mankato’s east side. Just east of the Hy-Vee-anchored shopping area, Woodside Apartments on Roosevelt Circle was the pioneer in transitioning development away from strictly commercial and retail. Drummer Development constructed a 49-unit apartment building east of the WOW Zone family entertainment center in 2012. The popularity of the apartments led to slightly larger buildings being added in 2013, 2014, two each in 2015 and 2017, and another in 2018 — creating an eight-building complex totaling 432 units with an assessed market value of nearly $39 million.
Drummer Development is now requesting the city rezone the final vacant three-acre parcel along Roosevelt Circle from the original “highway business district” to “office-residential” with plans to construct a ninth large apartment building. Preliminary site plans show the apartment units facing Adams Street with tenant parking hidden behind the building.
It mirrors the layout of previous Woodside Apartments buildings, which are surrounded by an extensive trail system ringing the complex and circling stormwater ponds. The trails connect to a municipal trail along Adams Street, which leads to restaurants and stores to the west and — to the east — a broader regional trail system including the Sakatah Singing Hills State Trail.
Petrie has been asked to add urban-village features on the 5.2-acre parcel he owns that’s bordered to the east by Woodside Apartments and to the west by the Goodwill store.
“Basically, consider amenities to the site similar to what’s next door,” Vogel said, referring to the existing Roosevelt Circle apartment complex. “For instance, pedestrian connections out to the street.”
A connection to Mankato’s transit system also is suggested, along with improvements to the private street leading from Adams Street through the shopping district.
Petrie, a major Mankato developer in the last century before moving to Las Vegas, received approval for the change in zoning at Monday night’s City Council meeting with the understanding the amenities will be added before final approval is given to the development later this spring.
The conditions require Petrie to develop “a multi-modal connectivity plan for the site,” that he “coordinate with the adjacent properties to improve pedestrian connectivity throughout the area,” that he incorporate a transit stop, that he provide green space or recreational opportunities within the development, and that the apartment complex “reflect the design components within the gateway overlay district and the urban village concept.”
The gateway district design standards aim to “promote high-quality design” at major entryways into the city “to create a positive first impression” and to “establish an image and character that is uniquely Mankato’s.”
“They’re not insurmountable,” Vogel said of the changes required. “It’s something they’ll have to take a look at and plan for.”
Vogel said he already sees residents of Woodside Apartments taking advantage of the trail system they’re connected to.
“That area has a lot of potential,” he said. “... The services are close by, the recreation areas are close by.”
The owners of the vacant Kmart building, who haven’t paid property taxes since the first half of 2018, have not approached the city about redevelopment plans. But Vogel said he’s heard they are working with other property owners in the area and are looking at turning the Kmart property into a multi-use center. Traditionally, that means the property will be divided into smaller units for offices, retail, hospitality or even residential uses.
Planning Commission member Jason Mattick is hoping the efforts of city planners and property owners will result in additional development allowing residents of the apartments to get to services, food and entertainment without jumping in a car or even getting on a bike. Mattick, speaking during the initial approval of the Petrie project, said the apartments on the east side still don’t meet the threshold of a truly walkable community.
“So I think the focus that was recommended will really add to the vitality and make that a desirable part of town if it keeps developing,” Mattick said.