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Levee Park plans: what's next (05/05/2014)
By Amelia Wedemeyer
Questions flew across the table at last week's Winona Levee Park Committee meeting. Should the committee recommend revisions to the park plan, which includes major changes to the Levee wall? Should new consultants analyze the plans' feasibility and develop funding strategies before the City Council makes up-or-down decisions? Should the plan be submitted "as is" for the council to decide what should be done?

The clock as ticking as city leaders expect the committee to make a recommendation on the project to the City Council in mid-June, which could range from a call to pursue implementation of the full plan, to pursue parts of the plan or, as some have discussed, to seek more time for further planning. Differing ideas on the committee and a suggestive letter from Mayor Mark Peterson, who formed the committee, sparked debate at last week's meeting.

Peterson: 'Is it a good idea?'

Just before last week's meeting, Mayor Mark Peterson submitted an open letter to the committee suggesting that it carefully consider the park plan's feasibility before making a recommendation to the council.

"I would like you to look at each of the areas in the plan and decide what you like about them and whether or not they should be included in the next phase of planning," Peterson wrote. "I would suggest you consider each of the ares in the plan carefully. In each area ask yourself if you think the idea is feasible? Is it a good idea? Is it important enough to take the time and expense to engineer? Is there enough support in the community?"

In an interview, Peterson said that he was generally pleased with the conceptual park plan, though "whether or not it's practical, that's to be decided."

A proposal in the park plan to replace part of the Levee wall with removable flood gates, similar to removable flood walls used in other communities, has attracted the most public attention, with some praising it for offering a river view from downtown and others raising concerns about altering Winona's flood protection. City staff have estimated that engineering alone would cost tens of thousands of dollars and take four to five years. Cost estimates for construction are not available, but costs of larger, similar projects in the region have reached into the millions.

"I'm not going to make any effort to steer the committee one way or the other on pros and cons of that idea," he said, when asked about the proposed Levee changes. "I have some of my own thoughts, but I'm going to look forward to their recommendations."

In an apparent reference to previous park plans that called for raising the level of the southern side of the park to allow a view of the river over the levee wall and recent suggestions by committee leaders that such an idea be explored as an alternative to the floodgate proposal, Peterson's letter notes that at the outset of the project, he suggested "improving visibility of the river from the upper park."

In an interview, Peterson observed that the University of Minnesota (U of M) designers who prepared the plan "didn't give us option one, option two, option three [for the park design], which might be nice." Multiple design options and conceptual plan drafts were initially planned, but family emergencies and conflict over "what if" proposals presented by the designers led to a committee decision to abbreviate the design process.

Committee: what next?

The mayor's letter asks questions the committee cannot answer, such as analyzing the plan's feasibility and estimating its cost, said committee member and Winona County Economic and Sustainability Director Natalie Siderius. Parts of the conceptual plan "haven't been fleshed out," and the project needs more planning "to really complete this phase," she said. She said that the committee ought to hire a couple professional planners and an engineer to spend a full day hashing out the feasibility of the plan, producing cost estimates, developing more defined funding strategies, and implementation plans prior to the June City Council meeting "so that when we take this thing to the City Council, they're fully informed and we're fully informed and then we can make better recommendations and the council will have a better decision-making process." She added that as part of the recommendation, the committee should "let the city know what we think the city investment should be to leverage funds to get things done down there. We should have that road map."

"Personally, I think that takes away some of what this committee is about," Pomeroy responded. Everyone on the committee was picked for special skills or connections, he said. Addressing Siderius and Winona County Planning and Environmental Services Director Jason Gilman, he continued,"Jason, Natalie, you helped with the open house, I'd hate to see us bring somebody in from the outside to help with something that you might already have ideas about ... I think we should use the talents we have on the committee." He added, "I don't feel that someone coming in from the outside this late in the game is going to move us forward, I think it's going to stall us."

Gilman echoed Siderius' sentiment. "When I took [the U of M designer's] last slide that was very nondescript about the next phase, [I] tried to articulate what the best practices are in the design development phase, which is really the meaty part of planning." In an interview, Gilman explained that design development is a planning phase that follows conceptual design and includes developing cost estimates, funding strategies, feasibility studies, and implementation plans, though not actual construction documents. "This is where you build those partnerships and the funding strategies to actually pull it off," he added, during the meeting. "The schematic drawings we got are a super start and I think we'll find out how the public is reacting to that and that will give us a great launching pad, but the design development phase is a really critical piece," he said.

The committee's task at this point is simply to serve as a barometer for public opinion, said committee member Mike Kennedy and committee vice chair Eric Sorensen. Ultimately, the council has absolute authority over the plan; it will tell the committee how much can be spent and where, said Sorensen.

"If we don't go to the City Council with a cost, how are they going to tell us how much money we can spend?" asked committee member Tina Anderson.

The committee needs to decide what changes, if any, to the conceptual plan it would recommend and then the council will decide what to do next, including hiring consultants to conduct feasibility studies for the aspects of the plan the council wishes to pursue, stated Sorensen.

Pomeroy and Winona Park and Recreation Community Services Director Chad Ubl echoed Sorensen's comments, but it was unclear at the end of last week's meeting if they had the final word on what needs to be done before the June City Council meeting.



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