MANKATO — A downtown district that has been long-neglected in the eyes of business owners would get a nearly $1.3 million upgrade, and it could happen as soon as this summer under a proposal before the Mankato City Council.
South Front Street from Cherry Street to the Public Safety Center would be transformed from its current stark, utilitarian nature into a pedestrian-friendly street of sidewalk cafes, trees and benches. Vehicles would still be allowed — which owners of the bars, restaurants and other businesses insisted on — but drivers would see just a pair of relatively narrow lanes to allow more room for wide sidewalks and other amenities.
“You’re looking now at the creation of a community gathering space,” said Eric Harriman of what people could see by the end of July if the project moves forward.
Harriman is executive director of the City Center Partnership, an organization of city and business leaders that aims to boost the vitality of downtown. The construction proposed for the upcoming spring and summer is the first and most substantial phase of a broader plan to promote “pedestrian connectivity” — basically making it easier and more pleasant to walk around the city’s core.
Future phases would make upgrades to the plaza between city hall and the civic center, better connect the Front Street area to adjoining streets, and improve pedestrian access through the Mankato Place mall and the civic center (including 24-hour access for pedestrians who are sometimes blocked by locked doors now).
That northern sector, though, has seen tens of millions of dollars of public investment, starting with the 1978 enclosure of the 200 and 300 blocks of Front Street to create the Mankato Place mall. The construction of the civic center came two decades later, followed by the addition of skyways from the civic center to the two downtown hotels.
On the southern side of Front Street, however, little has changed over the decades other than some decorative street lighting and some hanging flower pots.
“These core blocks believe now is South Front Street’s turn,” Harriman said.
There’s another incentive to redesign the area now rather than later. A $7.85 million seven-story office tower is being built at the corner of Warren Street and Riverfront Drive, connected by a publicly financed parking ramp to a $4.2 million four-story mixed-use building on the 500 block of South Front Street which will include a restaurant and a bar.
“We’ve got a construction project going on right now,” said Tom Frederick, owner of Pub 500. “To have it done at the same time is going to be key to our businesses down there. So we’ve got to keep this thing rolling.”
Frederick’s decision to bring Pub 500 to the street, in a newly constructed retro-look building, was a bit striking in 2003 when the area was known mainly as a drinking magnet for college students.
“When I built the building down there, it was the ‘Barmuda Triangle,’” he said. “We’re slowly working our way from that. This is a great step forward for us to become a dining and entertainment district. Pedestrian-friendly and patios are going to be key to making that work.”
Assistant City Manager Tanya Ange said business owners along the three blocks are overwhelmingly in favor of the upgrades but don’t want all three blocks painted with a single hue. They want designs that reflect the characteristics of each block.
On the 500 block, it’s all about the pedestrian experience. Sidewalks would be replaced and widened from the current 11-12 feet to 16 feet or more, making room for tree-shaded patios outside bars and cafes on the 500 block and possibly the 600 block.
On the 400 block, which has been closed to traffic since the 1970s and already has patio seating in front of several bar/restaurants, a big focus of the plan is public safety. The plaza is swarmed with people on busy nights, particularly at bar-closing time, and suggested improvements center on boosting visibility by adding lighting and eliminating the deteriorating concrete planters that currently fill much of the space.
For property owners on the 600 block, home to longtime businesses like the Wagon Wheel Cafe and the Once Read Used Book Store, support for the project comes on one condition.
“They really want to look at how to maximize parking,” Ange said.
Once Read owner Mark Hustad emphasized that point to the council.
“If we get the pretty sidewalks and everything, we’d get the frosting,” Hustad said. “But the parking is the cake. We’re in terrible shape down there for parking.”
For the 500 and 600 blocks, the challenge is balancing the competing uses in a limited corridor.
“It’s 80 feet,” Ange said of the distance between buildings on the two sides of the street. “We can’t increase the size of the pie. We’ll just have to determine how the pie is divided through the input of the property owners.”
All of those design considerations will be finalized in the feasibility study, which will include neighborhood meetings on Feb. 20 and Feb. 27. Decision time for the council comes on March 3.
The financing split in the draft feasibility report — 21 percent paid by property owners through assessments and 79 percent covered by the city — didn’t sit well with one member of the council. Residential street projects often require just 30-40 percent from the general tax rolls, said Councilor Karen Foreman.
“This is not something where streets and utilities need to be done,” Foreman said of the South Front Street project. “So this strikes me a little bit as a ‘nice to have’ project. And I’m a little concerned about a ‘nice to have’ project, and we’re spending twice as much of the city taxpayers’ dollars on that.”
The assessment rate — just over $100 per foot of frontage on Front Street — is the standard rate for a project of this sort, Ange said.
The council might have some flexibility in how to divide the costs, including possibly diverting tax increment financing currently dedicated to accelerated repayment of the Tailwind parking ramp bonds.
“Ultimately, the property owners and the council will be faced with a decision,” Ange said.