A 15-acre manufacturing site at the junction of the city’s two busiest highways has sat vacant and unused for years.
High-visibility buildings along Highway 169 are aging or, in the case of the former Dutler’s Bowl, boarded up.
And a scenic city park — Hiniker Pond — is isolated and disconnected from surrounding properties.
The Highway 169 corridor on Mankato’s northwest side clearly isn’t living up to its potential, according to city officials.
“I think that’s recognized not only by the city, but some of the property owners in the area see that as well,” said Kristin Prososki, Mankato’s associate director of housing and economic development.
A recently unveiled redevelopment plan aims to change that, suggesting apartment buildings, hotels and restaurants overlooking Hiniker Pond; possibly a Hiniker Parkway connecting the green space to the broader area; and a variety of options for reuse of the sprawling manufacturing property ranging from a Costco or Sam’s Club to a mix of apartment buildings, a hotel, a supermarket, a pharmacy or combination of smaller businesses, apartments and offices.
The Riverside North Redevelopment Plan envisions a very different look for people coming into Mankato from the north.
“It being a main focal point or gateway of our community, those are really the drivers behind moving forward with this plan,” Prososki said.
Nearly 30,000 vehicles passed by the spot on Highway 14 on an average day in 2019, and more than 26,000 did the same on Highway 169. Bordering North Mankato and just more than a mile from downtown Mankato, the area is easily accessible to more potential shoppers and diners than Mankato’s eastside retail center.
“Drive time analysis shows that this gateway area is conveniently located for more people than the retail businesses at River Hills Mall,” states the redevelopment plan compiled by consultant Stantec Inc.
“58,000 people are a ten-minute drive from the study area. Only 33,000 are a ten-minute drive from River Hills Mall.”
Year Around Cab
The retail potential is most evident in the shuttered Year Around Cab manufacturing complex along West Lind Street in the southwest quadrant of the Highway 14/Highway 169 interchange, which Santec deems “attractive for commercial and housing development.” At 15.6 acres, the site is about two acres larger than the Walmart Supercenter and surrounding parking lot on Madison Avenue.
The plan shows how the parcel could handle a very large big-box store of 150,000 square feet, mentioning Costco or Sam’s Club as examples, accompanied by a pair of 4,000-square-foot stores and a 2,500-square-foot store along the southern perimeter where traffic would enter the site.
Five years ago, that sort of retail complex might have seemed the most likely bet considering the absence of big-box retailers in North Mankato or in the valley portion of Mankato. Shopping habits have changed since then, and the plan offers alternative scenarios to a big-box chain store.
“With the uncertainty with retail, even pre-COVID, that may never come to fruition,” Prososki said.
The other alternatives for the 15-acre parcel show developments that could be constructed incrementally over several years. Two options presented have six to eight apartment buildings, ranging in size from 16 to 24 units on the western side of the parcel, some just across Lind Street from the path to Hiniker Pond.
On the eastern side, one option shows a 120-room hotel adjacent to Highway 169 with a couple of smaller buildings nearby that could be restaurants or retail stores. Another option substitutes an “office building — potentially medical offices” near the junction of the highways with “smaller retail spaces along 169 and a restaurant with deck space along the pond.”
The pond-side restaurant, which is shown in other scenarios as well, is placed on the site currently serving as the home of the Neighborhood Thrift Store at the corner of West Lind and Range streets.
Another possibility, again with apartment buildings to the west, would be a 30,000-square-foot grocery store and 10,000-square-foot pharmacy with smaller restaurant/retail buildings added.
“The scenarios vary depending on how much retail or office demand emerges over the next five to 10 years,” according to Santec.
Under the alternate options, a developer could start with the apartment buildings and slowly add commercial space as the marketplace dictates, Prososki said: “It just leaves it open to that range of possibilities.”
To the south of Lind Street and on the east shore of Hiniker Pond, the plan suggests no changes to the parcel housing the Days Inn, a 50-room hotel built in 1989.
Older buildings farther to the south, however, are prime redevelopment opportunities, according to the plan.
That’s been borne out by the reaction to the Dutler’s Bowl property, possession of which ended up in the hands of Kato Roofing when previous owner Ruth Dutler failed to pay for repairs made by the contractor. A sale is pending to an undisclosed developer.
“We’ve actually had quite a few offers on it,” said Cate DeBates, director of business development for Coldwell Banker Commercial Fisher Group, which handled the sale. “It’s just finding the right use.”
DeBates declined to comment on whether the buyer is planning to reuse the building, completely redevelop the site or combine the purchase with other nearby properties for a broader project.
“There are quite a variety of uses and the potential that it has,” she said. “... It definitely has value and we hope to see it rejuvenated there in the future.”
While most of the changes will be determined by private-sector property owners, the city could play a role through the construction of a new road.
A transportation study is currently underway that could bring a full cloverleaf interchange for Highways 169 and 14, along with changes to the Highway 169 corridor south of the junction. To improve safety and traffic flow along 169 south of 14, it appears likely that the Lind Street intersection with Highway 169 — the one serving McDonald’s, Hardees, Kwik Trip and other businesses east of the highway — will be closed.
A new intersection would then be added further to the south.
With those changes, the redevelopment plan envisions the intersection connecting to a new “Hiniker Parkway” running from Butterworth Street north along the eastern shore of the pond and providing access to the former Year Around Cab property. The current frontage road immediately parallel to Highway 169 would be removed.
The tree-lined parkway and the park beyond could prompt development of west-facing hotels, apartment buildings and restaurants overlooking the green space. The concepts would require the owners of several properties to be interested in selling their properties or dramatically changing them.
Those properties include Dutler’s Bowl, which was most recently an unsuccessful antique mall; the 54-room Budget Host Inn; the American Way Car Wash; and a small commercial/industrial property west of the car wash that currently sports a “for sale” sign.
Most of the structures were built in the 1950s or 1960s, and their assessed market values have been either flat or declining in the past five years, according to tax records.
Prososki said the concepts were applied to properties that would be directly impacted by the creation of Hiniker Parkway. In some — but not all — cases, the owners of the properties expressed interest in transforming their parcels.
“We try to focus the concepts on the ones that are particularly primed for redevelopment or the owner is interested,” she said.
One concept suggests a new 120-room hotel plus three apartment buildings totaling 152 units, all oriented toward the park and parkway. A restaurant and 7,500-square-foot retail store would face the highway.
A second option would drop the hotel, adding a 15,000-square-foot pharmacy, a pair of buildings about half that size to serve as stores or a makers-space building. A large 72-unit apartment building with four smaller rental housing structures totaling 26 units would be placed nearest to the park.
The third alternative envisions a 30,000-square-foot store, a pair of restaurants with decks overlooking the park and three smaller buildings for retail or restaurant use.
The study doesn’t suggest specific retail outlets that might be a fit for that segment of the corridor.
(For reference, a 30,000-square-foot store would be just smaller than the downtown Mankato Hy-Vee and about twice the size of a typical Aldi or Trader Joe’s food market. The pharmacy size nearly matches the size of the Walgreens and the CVS on Madison Avenue. Fast-growing restaurant chains such as Shake Shack and Raising Cane’s average about 3,000 square feet.)
Although the Riverside North Redevelopment Plan is focused almost exclusively on the area adjacent to and near Hiniker Pond, it also proposes development on a vacant lot on the opposite side of Highway 169 just across River Lane from the Kwik Trip.
The 3.5-acre parcel, owned by Kwik Trip, could accommodate three or four businesses such as convenience stores, drive-thru restaurants or retail/office spaces ranging from 2,500 to 7,000 square feet.
The redevelopment plan was financed by the Environmental Protection Agency through a grant program aimed at finding new uses for underused “brownfield” sites. The area is also an “opportunity zone” under federal tax law, making it eligible for special tax breaks for investors looking to reduce their tax liabilities on capital gains.
“I think it’s had an influence on the interest we’ve seen in the area,” Prososki said of the opportunity-zone designation, which was applied to select low-income areas around the nation through a 2017 tax law.
“It just adds another financial tool.”
And the city’s five-year strategic plan included the Highway 169 corridor as an area that should be targeted for redevelopment. The goal is not a new one. An initial redevelopment plan written in 1980 led to the addition of new frontage roads and resulting private development on the east side of Highway 169 in the 1990s.
Prososki is optimistic that the new redevelopment plan will bring similar results on the west side by showcasing the potential of the area, sparking discussion among private investors, and possibly spurring investment by the city via the proposed Hiniker Parkway.
A fresh look at the possibilities in the area comes in part from the fact that Hiniker Pond Park didn’t exist when the area initially developed more than a half-century ago.
What was then a noisy gravel pit is now a picturesque natural area that the consultants immediately recognized as an important asset.
“It really helped us to take a look again at what an amenity that particular property is,” Prososki said, adding that developers may have the same reaction.
“Certainly now, people definitely look to parks or water in general — whether it be a pond or lake or river.”
That’s been proven through a couple of investments already made. A handful of apartments were built along the north side of Hiniker starting in the 1980s, and 72 townhomes spread among nine buildings on the south shore in 2012. Those Park Place Townhomes now have an assessed value of $6.6 million.
Regardless of how the area specifically changes, the city will be aiming to make it an attractive walkable environment for residents, with trail connections both to Hiniker and to existing trails along the Minnesota River east of Highway 169.
“I do think that there’s a high likelihood of components of the plan coming to fruition,” Prososki said. “... We kind of see our role as setting the stage for redevelopment.”
DeBates said the proximity to Highway 14 and Highway 169, with the high traffic counts and direct connection to the Twin Cities, is the major selling point for the properties along the corridor.
But the parkland, nearby residential neighborhoods and other nearby amenities such as the Mankato Brewery offer “a lot of potential, a lot of great features.”