Artist's rendering from Winona County, Klein McCarthy Architects
The planned new county jail, as seen from Fourth and Winona streets, wouldn't meet city zoning rules for aesthetics. County officials are applying for exceptions on Wednesday.

County seeks exceptions to aesthetic rules for downtown jail


(4/30/2021)

by ZACH KAYSER

 

Winona County’s proposed new jail, as mandated by the state of Minnesota to be built, is about to collide with regulations enacted by the city of Winona to maintain a desirable aesthetic downtown. As plans stand right now, the jail would break three different zoning laws: one requiring a certain number of windows, one that requires buildings to be three stories tall, and one that requires them to occupy a certain percentage of the edges of their parcel. 

Two city officials said they had not seen the plans for the new jail and were reluctant to comment on its aesthetics until they had, and until the variances had been decided. 

City Manager Steve Sarvi was pragmatic. “I don’t expect that it will be a beautifully stunning piece of architecture, most jails aren’t,” he said. “But we’ll see what they come up with and we’ll react once we see it.”

Mayor Scott Sherman said building aesthetics were subjective. “No one likes an ugly building,” he said. “But there are plenty of them around town … at the same time, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There are developers in town who have built buildings that I consider ugly, that others consider awesome. That’s a subjective take on it.”

The jail planners are lucky in that unlike criminal law, in zoning law one can go to the government and get permission to break it — called a “variance.” 

On Wednesday, architect Danielle Reid of Klein McCarthy, the firm that designed the jail, will go before the city’s Board of Adjustment (BOA) and ask them to grant three variances to the project. It will be an unusual meeting, because normally the BOA considers variances that impact private homeowners and business owners, like the width of a sign or where a swimming pool can be installed. 

Specifically, the jail would fail to comply with an ordinance that requires a 60 percent area comprised of windows on the first floor of a building and 20 percent on the upper stories. It also doesn’t follow an ordinance which mandates a building in that particular area of downtown must be at least three stories tall — the jail will be between one-story tall in areas and two-stories tall in others. Finally, it violates a third ordinance that says a building must occupy at least 75 percent of the lot frontage on Third Street — the jail would take up only 16 percent. This rule is meant to prevent large gaps in the line of building fronts that are adjacent to the sidewalk.

In considering whether to grant a variance, the BOA asks six questions, which determine if, despite not complying with the exact letter of the law, a proposal is still proverbially good enough for government work. One of the questions is, “Are there unique circumstances to the property not created by the landowner?”

If a brief supplied to the BOA by Klein McCarthy is any indication, their argument will be that the circumstances surrounding the jail are indeed unique. “The building design meets the programmatic requirements of the jail, which is one to two stories with minimal windows for security purposes,” the brief said. “The building along Third Street is designed for receiving, and a secure vehicle sally port.”

In a memo to the BOA, City Planner Carlos Espinosa agreed that the practical considerations of the jail outweighed a literal interpretation of the zoning code, which is geared toward aesthetics. “The use of the building as a jail is a primary factor in its design,” he said. 

Furthermore, the ordinances are intended above all to govern residential and commercial buildings, not government ones, Espinosa said.  

Espinosa went on to say that despite the jail’s height being too short to satisfy the ordinance, the goal of the rule is to have buildings on Third Street match up with the four-story historic courthouse. The existing law enforcement center, which is even closer to the courthouse than the jail would be, is also two stories and thus technically doesn’t meet the requirement either, Espinosa said. 

As to the windows, apart from the practical matter of potentially having a jail with easily breakable escape points, enforcing the ordinance would mean that the windows on one side would look directly onto a concrete wall since the building would be close to the new bridge.

There will be a public hearing at the BOA's meeting at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, May 5. To join via computer or smartphone, visit https://us02web.zoom.us/j/86780351222?pwd=eGxOdmdNOWIwRmk5WU1QZEN2Vy9nZz09, enter meeting ID 867 8035 1222, and enter passcode 1088. To join via telephone, dial 1-312-626-6799 and enter the meeting ID when prompted. Once in the meeting, to mute or unmute yourself on a telephone, press *6.

Local@winonapost.com

 

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