The Winona Planning Commission voiced support for a proposal by city staff that would place new restrictions on development of the downtown riverfront condominium formerly owned by Dave McNally, especially any plans that might deviate from McNally's blueprint. The proposed restrictions would limit density, require off-street parking, and allow the city to direct development in the area. City staff explained that one reason for the restrictions is to tailor development towards more affluent residents.
Under the proposed ordinance change, lots would be required to have 1,500 square feet of area per residential unit, units could be no smaller than 1,000 square feet on average, and each unit would have to have two off-street parking spaces. Requirements for lot size and parking spaces would be reduced for residential developments that incorporated parking on the ground floor, as the McNally plan did. The change would affect the existing condo and any other residential development in the roughly four-block B-2.5 mixed use business district.
The current B-2.5 district was created in response to the McNally condominium project. It is unique for its small size and lack of restrictions. Industrial, commercial, and residential uses are allowed with none of the usual set-backs, lot-size requirements, or residential parking requirements. The purpose, city staff say, was to allow developers flexibility and spur a transition away from industrial uses downtown, as called for in the comprehensive plan. Now the city is acting to rein in some of that flexibility and do more to tailor development. When the condo was recently acquired by a La Crosse bank which reportedly had a deal to sell the property, city staff recommended emergency City Council action, pointing to the potential for high-density residential development with no parking requirements as contrary to the comprehensive plan. The City Council acted on those recommendations with a four-month moratorium on development and called on the Planning Commission to create rules to address parking and density issues.
Commission debates density restrictions
Commissioner LaVerne Olson questioned the lot and unit size restrictions during the Planning Commission's Monday evening meeting. "I'm not concerned about density in a particular building or unit as long as residents have a place to park off the street," he said.
"Whatever we do, it should be as flexible as possible to facilitate possible interest in development in that area," Olson continued.
"I don't want to restrict anybody bringing business into town, so where do you draw the line?" said Commissioner Dan English, echoing Olson's concerns about lot size and unit size restrictions.
English also pointed out that the average apartments are often less than 1,000 square feet. The units originally planned for the condo were to be 1,500 to 1,700 square feet, according to city staff.
When asked about reducing the density limits to allow greater flexibility to developers, City Planner Mark Moeller said, "I agree; given the current structure, we realize that it's important to get somebody in there and finish it or else it's going to deteriorate and become a liability for someone."
Commission Chair Craig Porter agreed that creating flexible zoning that encourages development is important, up to a point. "I guess in its current state it was not marketable, so therefore, if we want that thing to be finished, we should look at giving it as much flexibility as we can within reason," he said.
Ultimately, Porter, English, and the rest of the commissioners, except Olson, agreed that the city staff's proposal, including lot and unit size restrictions, was reasonable. Units smaller than 1,000 square feet would be too small, said commissioners Jim Gromek and Dale Boettcher.
Why restrict density?
When asked what the city's interest in restricting density was, City Planner Mark Moeller told the Winona Post that one reason is to provide predictable development for neighbors. With restrictions on lot size per unit, "if there's an empty lot next to you, you know what it could be," he said.
Restrictions on minimum unit size allow the city to cater to specific types of people. "The comprehensive plan is silent on the issue [of density]," Moeller said, but it offers "some guidance on target markets." Moeller agreed that larger-sized living units would host more affluent residents, supporting the comprehensive plan's goal of residential development that brings in cash-flow to the downtown area.
The comprehensive plan spells out condos or condo/rental developments serving university professors, graduate students, and staff as well as other young professionals as desirable in downtown. The comprehensive plan does not mention undergraduate student housing as part of the downtown revitalization.
Commissioners were not always as descriptive about the goals of density restrictions. The lot size and unit size restrictions "kind of eliminate some stuff that possibly could arise," commissioner Jim Gromek said. He also said, "the advantage of the 1,000 square foot average [minimum unit size requirement] is that you can somewhat dictate what can be there, instead of it being a Knights of Columbus-type building."
However, the proposed restrictions would not prohibit development akin to the Knights of Columbus building, which is now operated as "sleeping-only units" by rental company Bluff City Properties. The proposed restrictions would only apply to residential developments, whereas such "sleeping-only units" are considered commercial uses, similar to hotels or motels, Moeller told the commission. A hotel or other such commercial housing development would not fall under the proposed restrictions. There are zoning requirements that would apply to such a use, Moeller told commissioners, but they allow for greater density and only require one parking space per unit.
What is next?
The commission is expected to hold a public hearing on the proposed restrictions on Monday, May 27. The commission's recommendation will be forwarded to the City Council for a final decision. There is little time for reworking the proposed restrictions at any point in the process, however. When the council directed the Planning Commission to consider new rules for the B-2.5 district, they also enacted a four-month moratorium on new development in the district. If new restrictions are not in place when the moratorium expires, there is little controlling what the condo could become. The commission needs to make its recommendation early next month, city staff said, in order for any ordinance amendments to be enacted in time.