by CHRIS ROGERS
Twenty-one senior living apartments and a suite of recreation amenities would be built inside the former Madison Elementary School, and a new, 20-unit apartment building for people of all ages would be erected on the schoolyard under a tentative proposal from developer Andrew Brenner. Brenner has not yet formally applied for the rezoning and other approvals he would need, but he unveiled his tentative plan on Monday and asked the city of Winona’s Planning Commission for feedback. Brenner added that he tried unsuccessfully to convince city staff to locate the city’s new senior center at Madison.
In addition to converting the former school into apartments for people over 55, Brenner said he would use the former school’s gym and classrooms to construct an impressive array of amenities: a coffee shop, a library, a workshop, an arts and crafts room, a wellness center, and a movie screening room — plus a set of patios outside the school and a putting green for golfers. “I want to create Madison Place, the premier place for seniors in Winona,” Brenner stated. He estimated rents for the 55-plus apartments would range from around $600-$900 per month; most would be one-bedroom units.
Brenner, a Winona native with Twin Cities development experience, plans to use historic preservation tax credits on the project. That means that the historic school building would be restored according to national preservation standards, and Brenner said he intends to make the most of the school’s historic interior details like chalkboards, built-in closets, and decorative tile. “That’d be great,” Planning Commission member and historic preservation supporter Peter Shortridge stated. “If it’s rehabbed and you meet those standards, that would be a good thing. That would help ensure a good project.”
Madison has some serious repair needs, however, Brenner told the Planning Commission. He reported that the building needs at least $2 million in immediate maintenance and retrofitting, but would likely be worth only $1.4 million when the work was finished. In other words, the school building costs more to fix than it is worth, according to Brenner. “The building needs a lot of work, and I just want people to understand that. I knew that going in. I want to do this project because I think I can do something great,” he stated. However, in order to make the project economically feasible, Brenner said that he needs additional revenue from the new apartment building he is proposing to construct on the schoolyard. “Without the revenue from [that apartment building], I cannot make Madison school work,” he stated.
The proposed new apartment building would be located on the Madison block’s southeast corner. Brenner said he’d offer largely studios and one-bedroom apartments, with some two-bedrooms and a range of rents — from an affordable $475 to an upscale $1,119 per month. The average rent would be $750. The average market-rate rent across Winona is $609, according to a 2016 study.
During public input sessions last year, neighbors and citizens expressed a range of strong opinions about housing development on the Madison block. Some supported affordable housing development; many strongly opposed any rental housing development, and many were particularly concerned about apartments occupied by college students. Under federal law, landlords cannot discriminate against college students, but the type of apartments landlords offer may influence the type of renters they attract. “I’ll have mostly one bedrooms, and this will prevent partying, or lots of people living together, or college rentals — to some degree,” Brenner told the Planning Commission. “I can’t totally eliminate them.”
Numerous citizens said they wanted to buy affordable condominiums in the core city and argued that would be a great use of Madison. Many neighbors were much more welcoming of this idea; they preferred living next to owner-occupied housing rather than rental. Did Brenner consider condos? “I don’t want to have the responsibility with the state laws on condo buildings,” Brenner responded. Brenner said he had some experience with condo development and he does not want to do it again, at least not at an old building like Madison. He explained that the legal requirements for condo developers to repair problems with condo units — even if they are minor or non-issues — are much more demanding than the duties of landlords. “I just will not do that,” he said.
“We have the 30-percent rule in town — love it or hate it. This clearly violates the spirit of that rule,” Planning Commission member Brian Buelow said of Brenner’s proposal. In R-1 and R-2 zoning districts, the 30-percent rule limits the number of properties on a given block that may receive rental certificates from the city to just 30 percent of the properties on a block. However, when one property takes up an entire block, the 30-percent rule does not limit the number of apartments that can be built on that property. Therefore, under the current zoning, up to 16 apartments could be developed on the block — three fourplexes on the schoolyard and four units in the school itself, according to city staff. To allow more units to be built within the school and to allow the 20-unit apartment building, Brenner’s proposal would require the block to be rezoned from R-2 to R-3. The 30-percent rule does not apply within R-3 zones, but it would still apply to neighboring blocks, which are zoned R-2. In response to a previous rezoning proposal, former mayor Jerry Miller argued that rezoning Madison to R-3 would undermine the intent of the 30-percent rule. “That just doesn’t seem quite right that everyone else has to comply with that rule,” Buelow stated.
Years after its enactment, some Winonans are still debating whether the 30-percent rule is a good thing. The rule mainly serves to protect an oligopoly of incumbent landlords from competition from new apartments, Planning Commission member Todd Paddock argued. Paddock claimed a Winona landlord told him, “We don’t want more competition. That’s what this is about.” Wait a minute; the 30-percent rule was created to protect owner-occupied homes and the neighborhood character that comes with them — residents who are invested in maintaining their properties and respecting their neighbors — Shortridge countered. Paddock acknowledged that rational for the 30-percent rule, but argued that the rule’s supporters had painted all renters with a broad, negative brush.
Brenner is the second prospective developer who has seen dense housing as the most economically viable option for the Madison property and pursued rezoning. Many neighbors have said they do not want to see the property sit empty.
Brenner’s proposal would also require a variance from the city’s off-street parking requirements. Outside downtown, apartments must provide two off-street parking spaces per unit. The rules require two parking spaces whether an apartment unit is a four-bedroom unit or a single bedroom. Brenner is proposing 56 parking stalls for 41 units, mostly one-bedroom units. Shortridge called the parking variance “significant.” Brenner said he could add parking, but wanted to preserve greenspace on the block — something many neighbors said they want.
Brenner’s plan would preserve greenspace on Madison’s northeast corner, where the former learning garden is located, and it would feature a 60-feet-by-45-feet public playground area on the block’s southwest corner. Many neighbors said preserving Madison’s playground was their top priority. Paddock stated that the proposed playground seemed significantly smaller than the current playground and encouraged Brenner to expand it. Brenner said that would be possible, but it would eliminate a few parking spaces.
The next step for Brenner’s proposal would be to formally apply for rezoning and a change to the city’s comprehensive plan. Brenner said he intends to apply shortly.
Keep reading the Winona Post for more details. Let us know how you think about the proposal. Send letters to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact reporter Chris Rogers at 507-452-1262 or email@example.com.