by CHRIS ROGERS and NATHANIEL NELSON
Winona city officials say that before they approve new redevelopment proposals for Madison and Central schools, they want to spend the next three-plus months developing ideas for the potential reuse of the buildings. The process could postpone the redevelopment of the school buildings until 2019.
The Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board agreed to sell Madison and Central schools to Ben Schwab’s company, Building Value Partners, this summer. Schwab’s offer was contingent on the city rezoning the properties from R-2 (medium-density residential) to R-3 (high-density residential), which allows for a greater number of housing units. Earlier this month, Schwab asked the city to change its comprehensive plan and rezone the two sites. Following a public hearing filled with Madison school neighbors’ concerns about losing the former school’s playground, having dozens of apartments developed next door, and the city allowing a back-door exception to the 30-percent rule, the Planning Commission voted 7-2 against the proposal. Planning Commission members and citizens also pointed out a provision in the city’s comprehensive plan that requires a reuse study to be done before the use of government and institutional buildings are changed. City planner Carlos Espinosa contended that WAPS’ facilities studies constituted reuse studies; citizens and some Planning Commission members disagreed. “ … [District] 861 didn’t do a good job or didn’t do a reuse study,” Planning Commission member Peter Shortridge stated. In any case, after facing legal challenges over its bidding process, WAPS cancelled the sales and Schwab withdrew his rezoning requests before they reached the City Council for a final decision.
At the end of their last meeting, the Planning Commission members said the city ought to require reuse studies — or conduct the studies itself — and asked for information on how to do that. This week, city manager Steve Sarvi recommended that the Planning Commission lead a reuse study that would include opportunities for citizens to weigh in and would run from September through December.
The reuse studies would throw out various possibilities for how the school buildings could be repurposed and try to identify options that would be palatable to neighbors and city decision makers. “How can we get people to say ‘yes’ to the reuse of those buildings,” Sarvi said, as he explained the proposed reuse studies to the Planning Commission on Monday. The Planning Commission agreed to launch the proposed studies.
What does this mean for WAPS and potential buyers? A couple city leaders stated that new redevelopment proposals for the school buildings may be denied unless they address neighbors’ concerns. “If you throw the same plan in front of us, you’re going to get the same result. So why beat your head against the wall?” Sarvi said. “If [future developers] want to get past the Planning Commission and City Council, they should listen to those concerns,” Mayor Mark Peterson said.
The planned reuse studies might slow down WAPS’ plans to sell the schools soon. WAPS is now working with a realtor to market the properties to would-be buyers, and WAPS Superintendent Rich Dahman plans to bring any initial offers to the School Board for possible consideration on September 20. The school district has every right to sell the buildings whenever it wants to, Sarvi stated, “But I think any developer who is trying to do something with those properties before the reuse studies — they’re taking a risk.”
Dahman said there is no deadline for the school district to sell the properties, but the district does not want to hold on to them forever. “I think it depends on the offers,” he said of the district’s timeline for selling the properties. “There is a concern that the school district would be continuing to have costs associated with the properties as long as we hold onto them, and properties do tend to deteriorate when they are mothballed.” Asked if the city’s reuse studies would interfere with that timeline, Dahman stated, “Anyone who is interested in purchasing properties would have to either utilize them in a way that fits the current zoning or work with the city of Winona to change the zoning. So that would be more a discussion between a potential buyer and the city of Winona.” Dahman said he did think it makes sense for the city to make sure that development proposals line up with its development goals.
WAPS Board Chair Ben Baratto said the board will still be looking at offers during its meeting on September 20 and that the reuse study will not stop the School Board from considering them. “If the reuse study won’t be completed until December, I don’t see how [the sale process] will be affected,” Baratto said. “What I understand right now is that the superintendent has contacted a realtor, the buildings are back on the market, and any proposal or bid will be brought forward on the second meeting in September.” However, Baratto added that the rezoning issue could prevent some potential buyers from pursuing the property. “It would have an impact on whoever wants to put in a bid, with the uncertainty there,” he stated.
It is possible that a new buyer might propose a less-dense redevelopment project that would not require rezoning. “I guess we’d have to look at that on a case-by-case basis,” Sarvi stated. He felt that was highly unlikely and said that any such proposals ought to wait for the reuse study to be completed. “I think it would certainly make sense [to wait], but we’re going to do what we have to do and other folks can do what they have to do,” Sarvi said. “The school district can sell the property. They have every right to do that. We control the zoning, and we control the comprehensive plan.”
If the school district gets a great offer that does not require rezoning, will it wait for the reuse study? Dahman said he could not speculate on what purchase offers the district will get. “I think it would depend on what that bid looks like. The school district has a financial responsibility to all the taxpayers in our school district … so we have to weigh all the different options.”
The reuse studies will also look at the potential for the school buildings to be used for other government or institutional uses, including as a new home for the city’s senior center. City officials announced on Monday that they may be interested in purchasing Central school for that use, but it will take the city some time to study whether Central school would be a workable site for the senior center. (See sidebar.) Asked if it was appropriate for the city to limit how prospective buyers could use a building while at the same time looking into buying the building itself, Sarvi responded, “That’s absolutely a fair question, but the city has always had responsibility and owned the zoning and the comprehensive plan.” That is the city’s role, and deciding who to sell the property to is the School Board’s role, he said. “[If] someone comes in with a great plan to redevelop Central and the school district doesn’t think the Friendship Center is a good fit there, they have every right to sell it the way they want to,” he continued. “Our goal is to listen to and engage the community on what the future of those buildings may be and try to get us to some consensus — to try to get us to a ‘yes,’ rather than [citizens] feeing like an entire city block in the middle of their neighborhood is going to be changed dramatically without much of their input.” Sarvi added, “There are some people who are not going to be OK with anything other than an elementary school there, and I understand that, but that’s outside our purview.”
The Planning Commission plans to begin the reuse study at its September 10 meeting. Keep reading the Winona Post for more details.