A new grand plan for downtown Winona


(2/4/2019)

by CHRIS ROGERS

It’s really happening. From a revamp of Levee Park to a burst of multi-million-dollar development projects, from the growth of downtown apartments to increased demand for parking, big changes are going on in downtown Winona. “I think that we’re about to see a lot of the development that we’ve hoped for and that people have been working toward,” Winona City Council member Pam Eyden said.

But can downtown handle the growth it is experiencing? And is revitalizing downtown Winona a mission accomplished, or are there more goals yet to be realized? What should the next phase of downtown’s future look like? City staff and consultants will set out to answer those questions this year as they draw up a new strategic plan for downtown Winona.

Does Winona need a parking ramp?

The plan will analyze whether Winona has the infrastructure it needs — in terms of parking, sewer mains, stormwater handling, streets, and much more — to support the development projects that are currently proposed, Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi said. “We’re adding a lot more people. Those people are going to need services. We should be considering, what kind of services do those people need?” City Council member Paul Schollmeier said.

Parking will be a big focus, including how downtown can accommodate parking for staff at Fastenal’s up-to-600-employee office, the Friendship Center if the city keeps it at the Historic Masonic Temple Theatre, and the Winona County offices as the county considers building a new jail. “How are these things all going to be stitched together?” Sarvi asked.

“Of course, parking is one of them — everyone’s favorite topic,” Mayor Mark Peterson said of important issues affecting downtown’s future. “But as some of these development projects come online, we don’t want to just be reacting to them … If we’re going to put a [parking] ramp up, let’s put it in the right place. Let’s direct the growth we want in the right places. Let’s make sure we maintain the downtown well. Let’s just make sure we have a plan in place.”

As new and proposed developments have both driven up demand for parking and reduced existing supply, parking has become a concern for many downtown businesses. A 2018 parking study by city consultants found that Winona has sufficient parking, there are relatively inexpensive things the city could do to improve parking, and spending over $6 million to build a parking ramp is not justified. However, city officials have not ruled out building a parking garage in the future, saying that projects such as Fastenal’s office building might make a ramp necessary.

“I really believe that we should develop some type of circulating transporting system … so that employees can have a perimeter parking area and have a bus that comes through that parking area every 10 minutes,” Schollmeier said. Winona has available parking outside the core of downtown, and shuttles could bring employees from those satellite lots to work, he stated. Given that a ramp could cost many millions of dollars, Schollmeier argued, “How many decades would it take to pay for that? And how many years could we run a circulating bus [with that money]? A parking ramp takes up valuable development space, as well.”

City Planner Carlos Espinosa added that the plan will consider pedestrian improvements, such as adding more curb bumpouts like those at Second and Main streets, and making “streetscape” improvements, such as the landscaping and other aesthetic niceties added to the new plaza where Main Street meets Levee Park.

Will the plan set broader goals?

Beyond basic infrastructure needs, the city’s 2007 Downtown Revitalization Plan set big picture goals for the future of downtown — such as reconnecting with the river — and identified desired development projects and locations. City staff said those recommendations in the 2007 plan were the rationale for city officials’ decisions to buy the former Hardee’s restaurant for $800,000, consolidate the block, and sell it to the Main Square Community project; to promote the development of 60 Main Street (the city-owned parking lot north of the Winona 7 cinema) as a hotel and upscale apartments; to invest $1.8-million in the Masonic Temple Theatre last year; and to consider buying property last year for redevelopment east of the current YMCA.

The 2007 Downtown Revitalization Plan set a grand vision for how to revive downtown and what sort of development the city wanted to see. The 2019 plan could be a more modest plan for how to handle the development the city is already experiencing.

City officials have given mixed signals on how much the new plan will focus on recommending new development projects or other big goals beyond basic infrastructure. “That won’t be the focus of this plan,” Espinosa said, in a December interview, of recommending specific developments. “It may be a part of it, but the primary focus — what we’re looking at — is maintenance, streetscape, and improvements … There may be components of an overall, 10,000-foot, higher-level perspective, but the main focus will be on nuts and bolts. What do we need to do to keep them going?”

The plan might include recommendations for specific developments the city desires, but it is probably better to not get so specific and remain more flexible, Sarvi told the Post. He said the plan should include a look at whether downtown has the right mix of businesses or whether there are certain types of new businesses the city should strategically promote, such as new restaurants or workforce housing.

Eyden, Peterson, and Schollmeier echoed Sarvi’s comment about restaurants. Schollmeier added, “To attract people downtown that aren’t just living there, we need to continue developing and enhacing Levee Park and our connections with bicycle infrastructure, bicycle parking, and certainly developing a bike path along the levee. That should be way high on the agenda list.”

Eyden had a laundry list of bigger-picture questions she felt should be discussed. The city’s 2016 housing study identified a huge need for market-rate housing and affordable housing for working-class Winonans, she noted. Since then, numerous market-rate and upscale apartments have been built or are under construction. “Does that make us good for housing or do we need more?” Eyden asked. Turning to the 60 Main Street project, she said, “Do we go ahead and push for development at the foot of Main Street now that the former developer has backed off?” Eyden continued, “Do we push the people who own the [former] middle school gymnasium to do something there? Do we need that space? … Are we still interested in creating a downtown arts corridor? Is there a consensus that that would be a strong, positive thing to do downtown?”

Should public input be part of the plan?

To come up with answers to all these burning questions, consultants and city staff will review past studies and meet with downtown business owners, property owners, city officials, and Winona Area Chamber of Commerce representatives. Currently, seeking general public input is not part of the plan. Last month, the City Council approved hiring the consulting firm ISG on a $30,000 contract that does not include holding public input meetings, surveys, or other means to engage the public at large.

Hold on, Planning Commission member Todd Paddock said last week. Pointing to ISG’s plans to hold stakeholder engagement meetings with business owners and city officials, Paddock said, “With the exception of city staff and the Planning Commission, those are essentially all people who make money off of property … I don’t think that’s a representative sample of stakeholders.” He added, “There are other stakeholders in downtown’s future, and I want to see them engaged.”

The lack of public engagement in the current planning process contrasts sharply from the city’s recent reuse studies for Madison and Central schools, which featured multiple public input meetings and surveys throughout the process. It differs, too, from the process in 2007, when a 21-member citizen committee spearheaded the crafting of the 2007 Downtown Revitalization Plan and over 100 volunteers served on nine different subcommittees that met monthly for over a year to create the 2007 comprehensive plan. As currently proposed, the new downtown plan would be written by consultants and city staff, not a citizen committee.

City Council members had mixed opinions on whether public input should be part of the process.

“I don’t have any particular concerns over it,” Schollmeier told the Post. “If you report that there aren’t plans for the public input and the public responds and would like to play a role, I would be open to that. The more public you go, the more opportunities you have for wild and crazy ideas. And not to say that I haven’t come up with some of them myself, but you’re basically leaving yourself open to 20,000 different versions of what the plan looks like. You have to settle on one plan. There is a little bit of danger in allowing basically an open door to public comments or interests, yet you still want them to participate.” Schollmeier said he thought Engage Winona and city staff did a great job getting public input during the Madison and Central reuse studies, but he was neutral on whether the city should duplicate that public outreach for the downtown strategic plan. “The constituents we’re dealing with are people who own businesses and properties downtown,” he stated. “They are the ones that should be, in a large part, having a strong voice.” Schollmeier added, “If we didn’t do [public outreach] and I felt the plan was well drawn and considered voices I thought were important — landowners and business owners — I’d be OK with that.”

“I think there should be [public input], absolutely,” Peterson said. “I think it would be something we’d be missing if the community wasn’t given that opportunity.”

“Actually, it surprises me that the public in general is not included on that list,” Eyden told the Post. “I do think we should have a meeting for people in the community who are concerned and interested for the future of downtown,” she said. On the other hand, Eyden wondered aloud whether it made more sense to have open-ended public input early in the process or public input in response to specific proposals later in the process. “I think we need to talk about what role the public will play here,” she said. “People don’t like to have their opinions asked and not have any real role for them play. If the Port Authority and the city [are] just going to go ahead and do what they’re going to do, then I think the citizens need to talk about their opinions of the plan as a whole once the strategy is developed.”

Even though there are no detailed plans for it yet, the city will make sure there is public input, Sarvi told the Post. “We will have a process because downtown belongs to everyone in a sense,” he stated. The ISG agreement includes an option for the city to pay an extra $500 per meeting for ISG to hold additional meetings, and Sarvi said the city may pay to add public input meetings. “We will ensure that there are moments throughout the process where we stop and give data out and ask for response back. So I can’t speak to exactly how that’s going to look. It’s just, I promise that it’s not going to be, ‘Here’s the final plan, and you’ve got an hour before the council meeting to look at that,’” he said.

This will be one piece of larger plan coming in 2020

The new downtown strategic plan is part of a bigger planning process that is in the works. City leaders plan on creating a new comprehensive plan for the entire city next year that would replace the current 2007 comprehensive plan. Comprehensive plans set long-term goals for all aspects of a city, from transportation to public art. City officials use the comprehensive plan as a foundation to guide all zoning decisions, such as rezoning properties or granting variances for new developments.

Together with the recently approved parks plan, the downtown strategic plan will be plugged into the new comprehensive plan, city staff explained.

No meeting dates have been announced yet, but city officials hope to get started on the new downtown plan right away, starting this month, and hope to finalize the plan later this year.

“I’m really excited about what’s going on in downtown Winona. I think a lot of people are,” Peterson said. “I think for so long in downtown, there just wasn’t a lot going on … but I think we’re poised on the brink of a totally different downtown in the next few years.”

Chris@winonapost.com

 

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