New city of Winona Planning Commission member Mandi Olson spurred discussion of the city's biggest goals at the group's Monday meeting. Olson, who was nominated by Mayor Mark Peterson earlier this year, called for the Planning Commission to be more proactive in promoting the city's 2007 Comprehensive Plan, which includes projects such as Levee Park redevelopment, downtown revitalization, a multimillion dollar convention/performing arts center on the riverfront, the Louisa Street extension and overpass, pedestrian improvements, and the riverfront bike trail, among others.
"I just got on this commission to make a difference and to plan for the city, not to just have things as they are," Olson said. She pointed out that by responding to proposals, the committee is only fulfilling part of its duties: the reactive part. "[I would] like to get some understanding about when we start addressing the comprehensive plan," she said.
In addition to responding to requests from the City Council, the Planning Commission is charged with guiding the city toward implementation of its comprehensive plan. However, many city leaders recognize that some of the projects in the comprehensive plan are aspirational, or, as Olson said she was told privately, "pie in the sky." Other aspects of the comprehensive plan, such as the future land use map, simply provide a point of reference to judge whether private development proposals and proposed city actions are in line with the community's goals.
Planning Commission Chair Craig Porter said that Olson's request to discuss the comprehensive plan was reasonable and acknowledged that the commission had been "waylaid" by other issues, but also questioned what sort of action she wanted the city to take. "It kind of comes down to, we as a committee, we don't direct activity," Porter said.
"I thought we do — that we're an advisory board to the City Council," Olson replied.
"The comprehensive plan is where we want to get to," Porter responded. "Developments or new items or activity in the city that [require Planning Commission approval], come to us, we review them and say, 'This is the direction we want the city to go in.' But if we look at the comp plan and say, 'Hey, there's supposed to be this type of establishment on this street in this part of town,' who's going to do that?"
Some sections of the comprehensive plan call for boosting private development that the city cannot directly bring about, such as increasing the number of restaurants downtown. Olson noted that the city can still provide incentives for desired activity.
Other sections of the plan call for substantial public investment, such as for a riverfront conference/performing arts center. A feasibility study found that the proposed event center would cost around $30 million dollars.
Nevertheless, "there are a lot of things in the comprehensive plan that, unless there is a major change in public opinion and public perception, [unless] the city becomes much more liberal, will never happen," said Planning Commission member LaVerne Olson.
In a subsequent interview, Mandi Olson responded to that sentiment, saying, "We are a conservative community, but we have an opportunity to have the next generation step up and move forward." She acknowledged that some of the projects in the plan do not provide a plan for funding.
During the meeting, Mandi Olson noted that the plan directs the commission to lead a number of efforts including the updating of the city zoning ordinance. The zoning update will be key to many of the other aspects of the plan, she noted. Zoning changes would influence plans such as those for more housing, arts, and restaurants downtown, for example.
Olson asked the Planning Commission to address the comprehensive plan during future meetings. The 2007 Comprehensive Plan is already seven years old; maybe its time to consider updating the plan, Porter suggested. The commission members agreed to take up the issue in future meetings.
Mandi Olson also asked for background information on what happened to various initiatives in the comprehensive plan. "I need to know the history of what has been accomplished, what hasn't, and why hasn't it." She continued, "There's a whole plan about Broadway in here that is not what Broadway is today, and there was that news story about the two hit-and-run [pedestrian accidents]." The Planning Commission last discussed that issue in 2010 and proposed signs on Broadway between Main Street and Huff Street, which were installed, but the issue was never revisited.
In a subsequent interview, Mandi Olson also pointed out language in the comprehensive plan that directs city leaders to avoid tall developments along the riverfront that would block the view. "I kind of laugh because I think about [that] condo they built. I wonder how they passed that," she said. The city created a very small special zoning district with few rules in response to a request by the condominium developer in 2008.
During budget planning for this year, the city planning department requested $100,000 for consultants to help overhaul the city zoning ordinance; however, the city manager did not include it in the final budget proposal, along with funding requests from other departments, in order to reduce the tax levy. Council member Allyn Thurley gave staff "a strong recommendation to put it back in for 2015."