by CHRIS ROGERS
After suffering multiple defeats earlier this year, developer Andrew Brenner won a major victory on Monday for his plan to convert the former Madison Elementary School into apartments. The Winona City Council unanimously supported Brenner’s request to change the city’s comprehensive plan land-use designation for the former school. That change will set the table for the property to be rezoned from R-2 (medium-density residential) to R-3 (multi-family residential) and allow the 21 apartments Brenner wants to develop inside the school, while preserving the historic building.
The decision is not final yet. However, a majority of council members made it clear they support Brenner’s request. The council plans to formally approve the comprehensive plan change at its next meeting. City Council member Eileen Moeller — who represents the Madison neighborhood — criticized some of Brenner’s comments but ultimately voted in favor of his proposal.
The council’s vote went against the advice of the citizen Planning Commission, whose members said the ultimate rezoning of the property would negatively affect the neighborhood and constitute an unfair exception to the city’s 30-percent rule. Many neighbors testified against various versions of Brenner’s proposal this spring. At Monday’s hearing, Winonans were split. Some argued that Brenner’s request would allow too dense of housing in a largely single-family neighborhood. Others said that the city should support Brenner’s proposal so that the historic school building is used and maintained and so it does not sit vacant.
Although Brenner says he plans on building 21 apartment units with a grand total of 23 bedrooms, the proposed comprehensive plan change and zoning change could potentially allow upward of 60 tenants, Madison neighbor Sarah Callahan noted. “Those numbers alone are frightening on that part of the property,” she said — not to mention the potential development of the vacant schoolyard into quadplexes. “I think we can do better than housing there,” she said of Madison. “I think there are other opportunities there.”
Winona leaders always talk about saving historic buildings; here’s their chance, Winonan Brian Albrecht argued. “What I’m hearing here is you’ve got two choices. Either there’s a comprehensive plan [amendment] that saves this building, or the investor is saying, ‘I’m pulling the plug on it, and who knows what happens.’ … Are you going to save it or are you going to let it fall into waste?” he asked.
Brenner proposed multiple different versions of development plans for Madison this spring. At one point he pursued a proposal to use the building for childcare — an idea neighbors loved — but he said it proved to be economically unfeasible. “There have not been any feasible plans anyone has come up with besides rezoning to R-3 multiple family,” he told the City Council. “I found no one else willing to pay the rent at Madison that would cover the cost of repairs,” he added.
Pointing to homes converted into apartments on nearby blocks, Brenner argued that his proposal — which he dubbed Madison Place — would be far less dense than surrounding blocks.
If the council denied his request, Brenner said he would not sell the school building cheap, but said he would let it sit empty while he focused on developing the vacant schoolyard. “I’d take the easy choice and just develop [the schoolyard] and let the building sit,” he stated. Brenner added that, with changes to the tax code that lessened the value of historic tax credits and the potential of an economic recession in the mid-term future, “This may be the last opportunity to save this building.”
What would this comp. plan change mean?
Madison’s current zoning, R-2, matches the surrounding neighborhood and allows no more than four dwelling units in a single building. So currently, although the building is very large, no more than four apartments or condos could be built inside the Madison school building. R-3 zoning allows scores of dwellings in a single building. “The designation needs to change in order for more residential units to go into the building,” Winona City Planner Carlos Espinosa said, explaining the basis for Brenner’s request. Also, the 30-percent rule — which limits the number of rental licenses per block — applies to R-2 zones but not to R-3 zones.
Changing the comprehensive plan is a first step toward changing the zoning of the Madison property to R-3.
The zoning code sets the actual rules for what can be built where. Winona’s 2007 comprehensive plan sets guiding principles for the city — such as preserving historic sites, promoting affordable housing, and protecting single-family neighborhoods — as well as a map of land-use designations for every property in the city.
Right now, Madison’s comprehensive plan land-use designation is “semi-public/institutional/educational,” which reflects its former use as a school.
The surrounding neighborhood for blocks around is designated “traditional neighborhood,” which the comprehensive plan defines as “medium density” residential and depicts with photos of single-family homes.
Brenner asked the City Council to change Madison’s comprehensive plan designation to “urban residential.” The comprehensive plan defines urban residential as “high density” residential and notes that it should be surrounded by “appropriate transitions to existing neighborhoods.”
The comprehensive plan and zoning are connected because, whenever a property owner applies for a zoning change, the comprehensive plan is the main criterion used to justify approving or denying the rezone. The designation “traditional neighborhood” supports R-2 zoning. “Urban residential” supports R-3 zoning. Changing the comprehensive plan designation to “urban residential” does not guarantee that the city will change the zoning to R-3, but it gives city leaders less leeway to say “no.”
Brenner requested that only the northern 250 feet of the Madison block — essentially just the school building itself — be designed “urban residential” and ultimately rezoned R-3. The remainder of the schoolyard would remain zoned R-2. Up to three quadplexes or several triplexes, duplexes, or single-family homes could be built on the schoolyard under its current R-2 zoning.
What the council said
Council member Michelle Alexander made the motion to approve Brenner’s request, saying, “I actually find that the urban residential [designation] fits in perfectly with that neighborhood. It’s buffered up against a large number of apartments, complexes … The Heritage Apartments serve a very similar purpose in the neighborhood and it has not detracted at all from the quality of the neighborhood. It’s actually added to it. And I think if [Madison] is left to deteriorate, it will drastically, economically affect the neighborhood where I live.”
“I’m not troubled by apartments going in that building,” Mayor Mark Peterson said. “I think there are no other alternatives, or at least no one else has come forward with alternatives. [The number of units] seems reasonable to me, and I think something does need to happen sooner or later.” He continued, “I don’t think any of the neighbors want this building to be abandoned.”
Property owners are responsible for maintaining their buildings, and if Brenner lets Madison fall into disrepair, that is his responsibility, not the city’s, Moeller said. “My feeling is that [the historic school building] is being held hostage until the developer is getting what he wants,” she stated. “I’m not opposed to a development there, but I do think it’s important that the approach … is thoughtful and not, ‘Give me what I want, or I’m going to let your building fall into disrepair.’”
City Council member George Borzyskowski drew a parallel between Brenner’s proposal for Madison Place and the restoration of the former Winona Middle School into Washington Crossings apartments. The old middle school building had been in disrepair, but, he said, “In a couple of years, those became beautiful, viable apartments.”
“The city does need more housing of this sort — single apartments that are suitable for people in their early careers — but we also need more open space there, we need to keep the park, and keep the playground,” said City Council member Pam Eyden. Eyden backed Brenner’s proposal and requested that city staff look into trying to maintain public access to the Madison playground, which Brenner owns. “I don’t know if it’s possible, but I’d like to see the city and the developer negotiate so that it’s possible,” she said.
“I’ve never really been a fan of the 30-percent rule,” council member Paul Schollmeier said. “I think it kind of holds back some of the development we could potentially have in our community because we’re strapped for space. I understand neighbors’ concerns. I think there’s an opportunity for a development like this to benefit the neighbors and benefit the neighborhood if done properly.”
Some council members drew a distinction between the comprehensive plan change they supported and the rezoning proposal that is likely to follow. “This is a first step in the process. The zoning is going to be critical in the next step,” City Council member Al Thurley said. “I leave it in the capable hands of the Planning Commission to work out the zoning,” Alexander stated. If Brenner applies for the zoning change, as he plans to, the City Council would make the final decision.
Other council members suggested there might be an opportunity to modify Brenner’s plans during the zoning process. “I would hope that if we pass the comprehensive plan amendment tonight that we’re really diligent about the zoning and making sure what is proposed is really fitting for the neighborhood,” Moeller said. “I’d like to see — maybe there is a way to accommodate some of the concerns of the neighborhood through the zoning process,” Schollmeier stated. The city may have some opportunities to seek changes to Brenner’s plans, but if the property is rezoned to R-3, the apartments he is seeking to create do not require a conditional use permit, the kind of permit where city officials can approve a development subject to conditions aimed at assuaging neighbors’ concerns.