by CHRIS ROGERS
A sand-filled empty lot in the middle of downtown Winona’s main drag will stay empty for the near future. The property at 54 East Third Street has been vacant since the former Winona Islamic Center burned down in a 2013 fire. The Islamic Center has since found a new home, but city leaders have been trying to make something happen on the vacant lot for years.
“The longer we let it sit, the longer we get accustomed to having the missing tooth,” Mayor Mark Peterson said in 2014, likening the empty lot in the middle of Third Street to a hockey player’s smile. At the time, the Winona Main Street Program produced conceptual designs to garner developers’ interest and warned that the gap in downtown storefronts detracts from shoppers’ experiences. “There’s just a higher level of energy when more spaces are filled,” Yarnology owner and Main Street Program leader Gaby Peterson said in 2014.
Winona developer Scott Abramson purchased the property in 2015, and in 2017, developed plans to construct a four-story building with 36 apartments over a commercial storefront at the site, but late last month, a deadline for starting construction passed and Abramson’s permits for the project expired.
“Economically, it wasn’t as feasible as I thought it was going to be,” Abramson said when asked why the project did not move forward. “There were just a lot more expenses involved in that one with all the brick and everything.”
Abramson’s project was one of the last developments to be permitted under Winona’s old zoning code, meaning that it did not need to provide any off-street parking and was free from aesthetic rules in the new zoning code. The new code requires off-street parking for downtown apartments and, in an effort to promote the historic feel of brick and stone construction in downtown Winona, limits the kind of materials from which buildings can be made. Despite not falling under those new rules, however, the property is in the middle of Winona’s downtown historic district, and fell under the authority of the Winona Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC). The HPC pushed Abramson to include architectural niceties and more brick — as opposed to less expensive materials — to fit in with neighboring historic properties.
The project also faced a challenge somewhat unique to infill development on downtown blocks. Because there would have been no space between Abramson’s proposed new building and his neighbors’ existing buildings, the design of the new building had to be adjusted to make sure that snow from the new building’s roof wouldn’t drift onto a neighboring roof and overload it. “It’s more problems,” Abramson said of infill development in the middle of a downtown block. “If you’ve got a corner lot, your values go up for tenants versus an inside lot. And with an inside lot, you’ve got issues with roof loads,” he said. “There can be surprises that really drive up your costs with something like that,” he added.
The city’s new zoning code was approved in 2017, but because Abramson had already started applying for permits for the 54 East Third Street project just prior to the new code’s approval, the project was grandfathered in under the old zoning code. In January 2018, Abramson finished his applications and received permits from the HPC and the Winona Planning Commission. City rules give property owners one year after receiving permits to start construction before the permits expire. Abramson did not start construction before the deadline, and so his permits for the project expired on January 24.
So what happens with the property now? Nothing in the immediate future, Abramson said. “Basically, it’s back to the drawing board,” he stated. “With Bob Kierlin doing so much in the downtown in the next few years and all the other expansions going on, the downtown is going to change. I’d just as soon sit with that site and come up with something that’s going to be more valuable for the future.” He added, “It’s a valuable site, and I’d hate to put in an idea when there’d be something better.”
The expiration of Abramson’s permits also means that any future development proposal at the site would fall under the new zoning code and would be subject to off-street parking requirements. Like many downtown properties, there is not a ton of room for parking on the site, and Abramson had previously said it would be impossible to provide the 30 parking spaces his 36-apartment-unit proposal would have required under the new code. Of course, a future development project could seek a variance — or an exception — to allow apartments with fewer off-street spaces than normally required, or the site could be developed for commercial uses, which are not required to provide any off-street parking downtown.
Asked if he was concerned about any future plans for the site being subject to the new code, Abramson responded, “No, I don’t think it’ll make any difference. What it’ll come down to is working with the city on what’s going to be the best use of the property … I think working with the city right from the start might be the best way to get something done there in the future.” Abramson added that he imagines that whatever plans he develops for the site may be completely different from the apartments he previously proposed.