by CHRIS ROGERS
This week, the former Madison school got another step closer to becoming Madison Place, the 21-unit apartment complex developer Andrew Brenner has proposed. In a 4-3 vote on Monday, the Winona Planning Commission recommended that the City Council rezone Madison from R-2 (medium-density residential) to R-3 (multi-family residential).
Under its current R-2 zoning, only four apartments can be created inside the large school building. R-3 zoning allows many apartment units. Rezoning would also exempt the property from the city’s 30-percent rule, which limits the number of rental units per block. Being able to convert more classrooms into apartments is crucial to creating a financially viable use for the historic school building, Brenner argued. “It is the only workable plan,” he stated.
One neighbor who spoke at a public hearing said the rezoning would be too dense for the neighborhood. Neighbor Sarah Callahan pointed out that — although Brenner says he plans on hosting 23 tenants — R-3 zoning could potentially allow upward of 60 tenants in the school building. If that happens, Callahan said, “We’ve got a lot of people in that building, and a lot of parking that won’t be fulfilled by the required spots, and a lot of people in that neighborhood.”
The proposed rezoning comes after the City Council decided last month — against the advice of the Planning Commission — to change the comprehensive plan designation for the Madison property. That vote set the stage for it to be rezoned to R-3. City Council member Eileen Moeller and Mayor Mark Peterson criticized Brenner for making comments that they saw as being insulting to the Madison neighborhood, but they and the rest of the council voted in support of his request. “I’m not troubled by apartments going in that building,” Peterson said, adding, “[The number of units] seems reasonable to me … I don’t think any of the neighbors want this building to be abandoned.”
Giving his advice on whether the rezoning would negatively affect neighboring properties, Winona City Planner Carlos Espinosa told the Planning Commission on Monday, “There will be an impact on the adjacent properties, on the neighborhood, but not likely to be undue or excessive.” Pointing to the nearby Heritage Apartments, he added, “Just two blocks away, we have the same type of situation, and it doesn’t seem to be having any undue impacts on the neighborhood.”
“We’re now saying we’re going to add even more R-3 to increase that impact on an R-2 neighborhood?” Planning Commission member Peter Shortridge asked rhetorically.
“I think we have a reasonable proposal before us,” Planning Commission member LaVerne Olson said. “If this isn’t allowed to move forward, what will happen with the building? The building is not financially viable with only four rental units in it … If we want to retain the building as it is and have it refurbished, I think we need to consider approval of this proposal,” he argued.
The city needs to think about what R-3 zoning allows, not what Brenner says he is going to do, Planning Commission member Craig Porter argued. “We can’t zone based on what the developer says he’s going to do because he can do whatever he wants once we rezone,” Porter said. He urged caution against what could happen if Brenner’s plan fails and the school building is demolished. Under R-3 zoning, a new building with over 40 apartment units could — hypothetically — be built on the property, Porter noted.
A hurdle stands in the way of demolishing Madison. Because the City Council has designated the Madison school building as a historic site, to demolish the building, its owner would have to get approval from either the Winona Heritage Preservation Commission or City Council.
City staff proposed another step to ensure Brenner does what he says he is going to: a contract called a development agreement that would spell out the kind of development being proposed and would make city approvals contingent on Brenner following the terms of the contract. The recommended rezoning would require Brenner to execute a development agreement with the city in the future, but the agreement has not yet been written. City staff plan to draft the agreement during a future approval process. The terms of the contract have not yet been decided. Staff suggested that it might include a requirement that Brenner dedicate the Madison playground as a public park and that he restore the historic school building in accordance with state historic guidelines. If Brenner violates the terms of the contract, the rezoning and other approvals could be rescinded.
“We’re voting on this today without seeing the development agreement,” Shortridge noted.
Porter was also skeptical: “I’m looking for something a little more tangible than, ‘We’re going to address it later.’” He suggested that the city require Brenner to post a $1.5-million bond to guarantee that Madison Place is developed as proposed. Espinosa said that could be part of the development agreement.
Olson and Planning Commission members Dale Boettcher, Ed Hahn, and Todd Paddock voted for the proposed rezoning. Porter, Shortridge, and Planning Commission member Amy Jo Marks voted against it. The City Council will make a final decision on the proposed rezoning at a future meeting.
The proposed rezoning would only apply to the northern two-thirds of the Madison property; the southern third would remain zoned R-2. What will happen with that portion of the property is still an open question.
Earlier this spring, Brenner proposed developing a 20-unit apartment building on that land and described the revenue from those units as crucial to paying for the restoration of the Madison school building. In his latest proposal, Brenner said that, for the time being, he has no plans for the southern portion of the property. Under R-2 zoning, several single family homes, duplexes, or up to three quadplexes could be built on that portion of the property.
Porter and Callahan raised concerns that Brenner might seek to rezone that third of the property to R-3 in the future, which would allow numerous apartments to be built on the land.