by CHRIS ROGERS
The city of Winona’s new zoning ordinance would tighten some parking rules, loosen others, establish new aesthetic standards for buildings, and cut down on public hearings. The city of Winona released the first complete draft of its new zoning code earlier this month, and on Monday the City Council’s first discussion of the draft focused on downtown.
Downtown Winona is where the new zoning code will make the most changes. The proposed ordinance will wipe out a hodge-podge of business and manufacturing zones and special overlay districts and replace them with just two zones: downtown core and downtown fringe.
Downtown buildings would be subjected to new, aesthetic rules called form-based design standards. They include requirements for buildings facades to be mostly made out of certain materials — brick, stone, wood, textured concrete, or fiber cement — and to have architectural features that break up big, blank walls. The rules are based on the city’s existing Local Historic District Guidelines, which set out architectural standards which are required for buildings that are officially designated “local historic sites” and are guidelines without teeth for the rest of downtown. Including form-based design standards was one of the primary objectives of the zoning code overhaul when the city started revising the code last year. Council member Michelle Alexander questioned whether the new rules on facade materials would be too expensive for developers.
Referring to recent downtown construction projects that would not be allowed under the new aesthetic rules, Planning Commission member Todd Paddock said, “Many members of the community … said that they do not want any more buildings of that kind built and they wish that wasn’t built.”
The proposed downtown core zoning would also prohibit gas stations in most of downtown, including the current YMCA site and the former site of the Severson’s Sinclair gas station. Alexander and fellow council members Al Thurley, George Borzyskowski, and Paul Double pointed out that gas stations have been part of downtown Winona for many decades. Alexander disagreed with the proposal to exclude new ones in the future. In particular she expressed concern about the Severson family’s inability to redevelop the former Sinclair gas station site under the proposed zoning. Gas stations would be allowed in the downtown fringe, but not the downtown core. The Planning Commission proposed zoning the former Severson’s property downtown core because of the city’s vision for making the area around the new bridge an aesthetically pleasing, pedestrian-friendly gateway to downtown, Planning Commission member Peter Shortridge said. Alexander responded that people walking across the bridge may very well want to stop at a gas station for a drink. “I just don’t like to limit development when I know it’s a benefit to the community, and I think stations are a benefit to the community,” Alexander said.
Alexander also expressed concerns about the number of nonconformities the new rules will create downtown. Any businesses that do not meet the new rules could continue operating indefinitely and could sell their buildings, but they could not expand.
The proposed zoning code would require off-street parking for the first time in much of downtown and would loosen parking requirement for large retail developments in other parts of the city. Currently, many downtown buildings do not have to provide any off-street parking, but the new zoning ordinance will make good on the 2007 city comprehensive plan’s recommendation to change that by requiring off-street parking for large downtown apartments. Throughout the rest of the city, landlords must provide two off-street parking spaces per apartment unit. Under the new zoning, downtown buildings would need one space per unit for each unit over four units — so a five-unit apartment would need one space and a 20-unit apartment would need 16. Downtown commercial businesses would still be exempt from parking requirements. For “big box” retail stores over 2,000-square feet, the new zoning code would cut off-street parking requirements from one-space-per-150-square-feet to one-space-per-250-square feet. Espinosa explained that the city’s current parking requirements for large retail stores are excessive and much of their parking lots are never utilized. If the city relaxed those parking rules, it might open up opportunities for redeveloping land currently set aside for retail parking lots.
The zoning code would also create new “mixed use neighborhood” zones around historic neighborhood business districts on West Fifth Street at Baker Street and at Olmstead Street and on Mankato Avenue between Third and Seventh streets. The proposed zoning would relax current off-street parking requirements for second-story apartments in those areas from two per unit to one per unit. The idea is to encourage reinvestment in those old neighborhood storefronts, Espinosa explained.
The proposed zoning code would also eliminate opportunities for citizens to voice concerns about zoning decisions in front of the City Council. For many zoning decisions — such as rezoning a property from residential to commercial or industrial — city code currently requires the city to hold two public hearings: one in front of the Planning Commission before the commission makes its recommendation to the City Council and one in front of the City Council before the council makes a final decision. Under the proposed zoning ordinance, nearly all hearings before the City Council would be eliminated. Citizens who wanted to change the new zoning ordinance’s aesthetic rules, for example, could make their case in front of the Planning Commission, but the city would not be required to hold a public hearing in front of the City Council before the council took a final vote. For conditional use permits (CUP), the Planning Commission already has decision-making power, but developers or citizens can appeal that decision to the City Council. The council is currently required to hold a hearing and listen to citizens’ testimony before making a decision on such an appeal. Under the proposed ordinance, citizens could still appeal the Planning Commission’s decision to permit a frac sand processing facility, for example, but the City Council would not have to hold a public hearing on the matter. City officials said the requirement for two hearings was redundant.
City leaders plans to hold an open house to seek input on the proposed zoning ordinance on November 17. Event details have not been announced yet. Espinosa said he expects a final version of the new zoning code will come before the council for adoption in the spring.
In its September 25 edition, the Winona Post incorrectly reported that the proposed new zoning ordinance would eliminate public hearings at the Planning Commission level and retain them at the City Council level. Most hearings before the council would be eliminated, and Planning Commission hearings would be retained.