Tom Hagen

Tom Hagen

The convenience store site on Belgrade Avenue in North Mankato has been nearly cleared for construction of a bar/restaurant and bank. City Administrator John Harrenstein said, “There aren’t a lot of steps needed for the project to proceed … We’re ready to go when they are.”

But there is something left: design approval. In 2015, 350 participants at a Belgrade Avenue event were polled as to what was important to them in a re-vitalized Belgrade Avenue. They were asked to grade how they value the historic character of Lower North Mankato. On a scale of one to five, five being highly valued, 40% assessed a grade of five and 28% gave a grade of four. These results identify that 68% of participants value an historic look and indicated that history should be reflected in design guidelines.

In the summer of 2018, the city received an Historic Context Study that Thomas Zahn and Associates of Minneapolis took nearly a year to complete. The Zahn report agreed with the earlier Belgrade Avenue Master Plan, writing, “Adhering to the design guidelines adopted in the Belgrade Master Plan will capitalize on the remaining historical aspects Belgrade has to offer.”

With these two studies in hand, why would the currently proposed design be so inappropriate considering the recommendations?

The Belgrade Avenue Master Plan is clear. It states: “The historic look of the downtown should be reflected in the design guidelines adopted for the district.” And: “Buildings should architecturally fit within their context…” As positive as the idea of development on Belgrade is, the current design does not measure up to the Belgrade Master Plan standards.

Asked a number of times who decides if a new building fits the recommended guidelines for Belgrade Avenue, the mayor, at the last council meeting, finally announced council and staff do.

This is the same council that approved the bland, modern Marigold One building with no historical context. The Council then agreed to sell the Marigold Two lot to a developer for one dollar so he could build a six-story apartment. (Look at the apartments there now and imagine double the height!)

They gave the developer two illegal variances, and the project was stopped by a citizen lawsuit over that issue. Later, this same lot that they had agreed to sell for a dollar, was sold to a new developer for $200,000. And the poor building judgment continues.

Two months ago, the council changed city code to allow swimming pools to be built within 10 feet of the bluff edge, this in spite of the fact that the greater Mankato area experienced dozens of slumps and landslides in the last year, and geologists warn that the problem will only get worse in years to come.

If the city had an Historic Preservation Commission in place, its members would have had the ability to review the architectural plans in an historic district and make recommendations.

HPC’s are composed of historians, architects and interested citizens. Mankato, St. Peter and New Ulm all have had HPC’s in place for years. In fact, 54 Minnesota cities have HPC’s.

In North Mankato, both the mayor and city administrator stated that North Mankato would never have an HPC as they were obstacles to development and only serve to add another level of arcane bureaucracy. Yet, the city controls the number of rental properties, the height of grass and how long you can leave a vehicle parked on your property among a myriad of other restrictions. Maintaining the historic context of Belgrade Avenue is not out of the city’s purview. It is a quality of life issue. Promoting and enhancing historic districts creates places people want to experience and actually encourages development. Think Stillwater or Lanesboro.

Without an HPC, the next best idea is to reconvene the Belgrade working group that created the Belgrade Avenue Master Plan in the first place. Working with the developers, they could potentially give the community a chance to come up with a design to better fit the historic context of Belgrade Avenue.

Tom Hagen lives in North Mankato.

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