by CHRIS ROGERS
There is good news and bad news for neighbors of the former Madison Elementary School. Developer Andrew Brenner’s new plan for Madison is all about child care — a use many neighbors and citizens favored — and it does not require rezoning the property — which many neighbors opposed. However, at least for now, the Madison neighborhood will not get its number-one wish: keeping the former school’s playground open to the public. Winona city officials said that could change in the future. Brenner said he may need the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board to remove restrictions on the Madison property deed to make the new plan work.
Earlier this year, the Winona Planning Commission voted against Brenner’s first proposal for Madison: converting the historic school into 21 senior apartments, building a 20-unit apartment building on the schoolyard, and, in a nod to neighbors’ wishes, maintaining a playground for public use. Brenner developed a second proposal, which he dubbed plan B: converting the school building into 10 apartments and a small childcare center, while reserving the schoolyard for possible future development. City officials said that, under plan B, the city could require a public playground be part of the development.
Around a dozen neighbors were prepared to speak at a public hearing on Monday regarding a change to the city’s comprehensive plan that would have cleared the way for rezoning Madison to accommodate plan B, but they filtered out of the room after Winona City Planner Carlos Espinosa announced Brenner had withdrawn that request. Brenner explained that after he had already submitted his request for the comprehensive plan change to the city, he received more interest from potential childcare operators and decided to scrap plan B in favor of what he called plan C: using the school building entirely as a childcare center and reserving the schoolyard for possible future development.
Brenner stated that getting the WAPS Board to remove restrictions on the Madison property deed may be key to making a daycare center at Madison feasible. When it sold the property to Brenner, the School Board placed a restriction on the deed limiting any future owners from using the building as school, including K-12 education and pre-kindergarten. The School Board resisted calls to lift the same deed restriction on the former Rollingstone Community School, which would have allowed a charter school to use the Rollingstone building.
Because it does not involve any apartments, plan C does not require major zoning approvals from the city. Brenner will likely need a variance from the city’s Board of Adjustment because the Madison school building is built closer to the property line than modern zoning rules allow, but child care is allowed under Madison’s current zoning.
In exchange for major zoning approvals, Brenner’s original plan would have provided a public playground maintained at Brenner’s expense. The new plan does not require major zoning approvals, and Brenner said that, at least for now, the playground will remain private.
“I tried so hard to make it work out for everybody and make everybody happy,” Brenner said of his previous plans. “This way, I don’t have to answer to anybody,” he added.
Espinosa said that the possibility still exists for a public playground at the block. Brenner said he has no immediate plans to develop the southern half of the Madison block — the schoolyard — but mentioned that he might try to have residential units built there. Up to three quadplexes would be allowed without any rezoning. However, Espinosa said that if Brenner wants to develop the southern half of the block it would likely require the city to subdivide the block into different parcels. Through a development agreement with Brenner, the city could require some public park space as part of that subdivision, Espinosa explained.