by Frances Edstrom, columnist
Sometimes you think you’ve won the war, but you’ve only won the battle. Such is the case with the city block bordered by Huff and Winona, Sarnia and Mill streets. It used to be called the Lincoln Block, since it was the home of Lincoln Public School for about 100 years. The first school was demolished to make way for the newer one, which was demolished in 2007.
When the public schools abandoned Lincoln School, back in 1979, and a local developer proposed a multi-unit apartment building, the neighbors fought the idea at City Council. They asserted, rightly, that the area is zoned R-1, or low-density residential district, and acts as a protection, a buffer zone, for Lake Winona and its public gardens and bike path from encroachment by high-density housing and commercial buildings, as well as the university.
The neighbors won that battle. A Christian school moved into the building, a plan that was also controversial, but did protect the block from development. When they moved out, the public school district then moved several of its operations into the building, including district offices, community education, and for a time, the Alternative Learning Center.
In 2004, the building was once again empty, and Winona State University proposed purchasing the building and block for $700,000, demolishing the building and establishing a parking lot on the block. Neighbors were rightly leery of the plan, as it established the university that much closer to Lake Park. They worked with WSU so that the lot was designated for long-term parking, meaning there would be many fewer cars entering and exiting the lot on a daily basis. Some berms, plantings, and low-impact amber lighting were installed, although not as many as neighbors had hoped. The effect on the family-friendly low-density neighborhood was somewhat mitigated through cooperation between the university and neighbors. The city designated the block “Semi-public/Institutional/Education” in its comprehensive plan, and the block remained in the public domain.
Now, however, another plan is proposed, one that would require a zoning change from low-density housing to a business district. Kwik Trip, that ubiquitous gas station/grocery store chain, is proposing to move its operation on the northeast corner of Sarnia and Huff to the Lincoln Block, doubling its size, more than doubling the number of gas pumps, and increasing vehicle traffic by a minimum of 25 percent.
Not only is it dangerous in general to set a precedent of spot zoning business districts into residential zones in a small town that is home to mainly families with children, working or retired adults, and students, this particular project puts a 24-hour, high-traffic, light-, noise- and pollution-generating business a mere block from Lake Park, and smack dab in the middle of an R-1 district. If this is allowed, any residential area in Winona is fair game for a similar project, and spread of similar commercial projects closer to the lake shore is possible.
Winonans value their parks, and have demonstrated time and again that they are willing to fight for them. This proposed project for the Lincoln Block is coming perilously close to lovely Lake Park, a site for both quiet contemplation and outdoor activities for thousands of Winona adults and children all year round.
This expansion and encroachment into an R-1 district should be seriously rethought, and the city should protect its citizens and their interests first and foremost.