by CHRIS ROGERS
After rejecting it just two months ago, the Winona City Council on July 6 approved a new, four-story, up-to-36-unit, senior housing cooperative in Pleasant Valley. Many neighbors spoke against allowing such dense development in the semi-rural valley, while other citizens said such housing is badly needed and city staff made a similar pitch. The council members who cast deciding votes said two new factors changed their minds: The city now has a deal in place with Wilson Township for annexing properties like this one and the developers reduced the height of the proposed building from five stories to four, counting a parking level.
Mankato, Minn.,-based Bradford Development built the existing Willow Brook Cooperative in Winona’s East Burns Valley, which — similar to a condo building — is collectively owned by its residents. With an overflowing waiting list of people hoping to live at Willow Brook, Bradford spent the last two years planning a new co-op: Cedar Brook Cooperative in Pleasant Valley.
Across from Signatures and The Bridges Golf Course, the land where Cedar Brook is slated to be built is owned by Mitch Bublitz, who came under criticism from neighbors and city officials after the property’s steep hillsides were denuded of trees and piles of brush were left behind. Bublitz’s land is currently outside Winona’s city limits, in Wilson Township’s territory. Just last month, the city and township struck a deal to streamline the annexation of properties such as Bublitz’s into city territory.
However, the city’s comprehensive plan — which sets out long-term goals for the future of development in the Winona area — designated Pleasant Valley for “low density” residential development, or more of the kind of single-family homes on large lots that exist in the valley today. To allow a four-story apartment building with up to 36 units, the city would have had to change the comprehensive plan and designate the property for “urban residential” development — the designation for high-density apartment buildings and the like. It’s that change — from “low density” to “urban residential” — that the City Council approved on July 6 in a 6-1 vote. Other approvals are still needed for the project, including annexation, zoning, and a site plan, but it cleared a major, first hurdle.
Many neighbors opposed the project and the city’s Planning Commission was split 4-4. Neighbors and Planning Commission members alike said that such a dense development did not belong in Pleasant Valley and that the city was inappropriately trying bend its rules for “urban residential” designation to make a square peg fit in a round hole.
“Those of us who moved to this area moved here because it’s peaceful and there aren’t high-rises,” neighbor Laurel Littrell stated at a public hearing.
“I’d like to see it developed as more single-family residential housing as we have in other parts of Pleasant Valley,” neighbor Roberta Bumann said of the property.
“This feels a little haphazard,” neighbor Gabe Ericksen said. “Rather than sticking to a plan that the city has for expansion, this just seems like a spur-of-the-moment opportunity that comes up.” Ericksen and other neighbors raised concerns about the volume and speed of traffic on County Road 17 and safety for drivers and people walking along the road. “To me, this land could be used kind of similar to Cobblestone [Creek Subdivision] or some of the other developments we have — a little more spaced out residences,” he suggested.
Rochester, Minn., resident Sandy Shirk-Heath is one of the many people on a waiting list to live at Cedar Brook. “I think it is a good use of the land — a senior housing facility,” she stated.
Others have written letters to the editor urging the City Council to reconsider its denial of Cedar Brook, and some council members who wanted to approve the development back in May were vocal in their dissent from the initial decision to reject it. “We walked away from $10 million for really no legitimate concern,” City Council member George Borzyskowski said of the decision to deny Cedar Brook in May, referring to its possible taxable property value.
At the July 6 meeting, Winona Economic Development Director Lucy McMartin also highlighted the project’s expected multi-million-dollar addition to Winona’s tax base and stressed the need for more housing of all kinds and senior housing in particular in Winona. Creating more cooperative senior housing will allow older Winonans who want to downsize to move out of their existing homes, allowing younger Winonans to move into those homes and helping to alleviate Winona’s very limited supply of for-sale houses, McMartin told the City Council.
City Council member Michelle Alexander voted to approve the project back in May and made the case for it again last Monday. While it did require changing the comprehensive plan for Pleasant Valley, Alexander described the project as in line with the city’s long-held wish to expand southward along County Road 17. “I understand that a development next door is not what any of you want; however, this has always been the long-term plan for the city of Winona,” Alexander told neighbors. Neighbors might not think it is a good spot for this kind of housing because of the lack of sidewalks or the distance from shops and parks, but the developers and the people on the waiting list have their own reasons for choosing this site, Alexander said. “I think it’ll end up being a wonderful place for some of our seniors or older adults who want to move back to the community or want a have a cooperative living arrangement,” Alexander stated.
Adapting a more colorful phrase, Borzyskowski said, “Building happens. It happens out in the valleys. That’s where people look to go.”
Alexander, Borzyskowski, and City Council member Al Thurley all voted in favor of the project when it failed on a 4-3 vote in May. Crucially, this time around, nearly all of the four council members who opposed the comprehensive plan change in May came around to support it.
“My problems with this development before at the last vote were two things. One, I didn’t want to see us annex by ordinance and possibly see us disrupt a relationship with the township,” City Council member Pam Eyden said. In May, the city was considering a one-sided move to annex the property against the township’s wishes; now it has a mutually agreed upon deal for how annexations can occur. “And also the building height was just too much for the shape of the bluff,” Eyden added, noting the proposed building is now one-story shorter.
City Council member Paul Schollmeier and Mayor Mark Peterson agreed with Eyden, with Schollmeier saying that having a mutually acceptable deal with Wilson Township made all the difference in his vote and Peterson saying the building height was key to his. “I certainly I feel more comfortable with a three-story building instead of a four-story building on that location,” Peterson said, referring to the building height not including the parking level.
City Council member Eileen Moeller cast the only vote against the comprehensive plan change last Monday. She cited neighbors’ many concerns and her belief that the city should not change its comprehensive plan lightly. “I feel pretty strongly about following the comprehensive plan,” Moeller said.
In his comments, Schollmeier included a pointed message to local developers. He was responding to criticisms about Cedar Brook being far from the city center and developed by an out-of-town company. “We have property owners downtown who know there is a demand for this type of housing, but they’re deciding to build rental,” Schollmeier stated. “This is a message to those property owners and those developers. Start building what we need in our community, so we don’t have to go out on the fringe.”