Postcards from Monticello’s future and a map-modifying exercise provided additional data for the Downtown Small Area Plan Steering Committee during its second meeting.
The Monticello Economic Development Authority (EDA) is working with Minneapolis-based Cuningham Group to accomplish a revised land use plan for the core downtown Monticello area.
Andrew Dresdner, a senior associate with the Cuningham Group, and Thomas Leighton, a principal Tangible Consulting Services, spearheaded a steering committee meeting March 2 at the Monticello Community Center.
During almost two hours of discussion and review, committee members agreed with Dresdner and Leighton’s review of recently collected data that the Monticello Community Center and the Monticello Library represent a new heart of activity, even though the two community amenities are a bit isolated from the current downtown.
Engaging the Mississippi River a resource and shifting the downtown center to a more pedestrian-friendly corridor that could change the Walnut Street landscape were other key recommendations presented by Dresdner and Leighton, who also reviewed two forms of public input.
Recent displays in the Monticello Community Center and the Monticello Library asked residents to fill out a “Hello From Monticello” post card sent 25 years from now.
The public was also asked to participate in a “Dotmocracy” map exercise that used green and red dots to identify strong and weak spots within the downtown study area.
“Sometimes, it’s good to get people to do things physically,” Dresdner said. “I wanted people to see what your neighbors are writing and thinking. “It’s partially your job as a steering committee to serve as a conduit to your neighbors, and to reflect what their thoughts are as well. And, it’s important to see that data first-hand.”
Ideas for improving the downtown included adding a fountain, a brewpub, a homemade candy and sandwich shop, and an ice cream vendor near West and East Bridge Parks.
Dresdner said the original plat downtown map of the city created an “incredibly boring pattern,” with a large number of square blocks that are identical to each other.
Narrow properties in the old storefront district allowed Monticello to develop in a small, incremental manner, he said.
“Today’s plat map looks different, but there’s a lot to be learned from what worked well,” Dresdner said.
During his opening presentation, Dresdner also reviewed the map dot-placement exercise, which was also completed by steering committee members.
“The three places that loaded up on the green dots were the community center and library, civic corridor that we are in now, and two bridge parks, and area near Cornerstone Café and Lucille Murray’s Studio of Dance. “The green pattern is extraordinarily clear,” Dresdner said. “The red pattern says that the Highway 25 and Broadway intersection is not a beloved place.”
Leighton also told the steering committee the things people identified as green dots represented key assets.
“They are all lined up along a single street,” he said. “It also speaks to having additional development on Walnut Street, and if people are living there, they are close to the downtown district, the river, and closer to civic amenities, There’s a lot of logic about building from strengths in a linear corridor that connects to the river.”
Leighton said he and Dresdner have been learning about development and its market context in Monticello.
“A lot of this is visual,” he said, before reviewing basic Monticello demographics and the market for housing and retail development.”
Leighton said he had three conversations with developers who were familiar with the area.
“We want to have a few more,” he said.
Leighton said Monticello’s median income is a little higher than the state of Minnesota as a whole.
“One of the things that’s worth noting about that is there is disposable income to support businesses and amenities. That makes having a thriving or revitalized retail district more achievable.”
EDA member Steve Johnson owns commercial property on Block 52 in the downtown area of Monticello. Previously, he was involved with the Embracing Downtown program fostered by the city of Monticello and spearheaded the reSTOREing Downtown activities. Johnson also has a background in commercial real estate.
Johnson said the higher income people mentioned by Leighton tend to live outside of the city limits, most notably in Monticello Township.
“When you look at market studies and retail potential, you are leaving a big slice of disposable income if you don’t take a [larger] market area as opposed to just taking the city limits,” Johnson said.
City Administrator Jeff O’Neill said it was important to include population on the opposite side of the river, in Big Lake. “They affiliate a little bit more with Monticello,” O’Neill said, agreeing with Johnson’s additional point about the Monticello School District also extending across the river.
Steering Committee and Monticello City Council Member Charlotte Gabler agreed.
“If you go to the east into Mississippi Pines, it’s an Otsego address, but it’s Monticello School District, and that’s what they identify with,” she said.
Leighton also addressed housing and employment trends.
“There’s a healthy mix of homes in Monticello, he said. “You do have a population that lives and works here, but there are more people who leave here to go to work each day.”
Johnson said Monticello has had huge growth with its light industrial.
Leighton said he and Dresdner talked about downtown Monticello development possibilities with one developer.
“He said you could attract downtown housing. There’s a lot of amenities in the area that support it. He thought it would be viable, but need some more public support and community support. He was optimistic,” Leighton said.
Dresdner said that the new IRET apartment project as reduced the market risk for any developer that wanted to come in underneath the price of housing that currently being provided.
“You could not do 200 units downtown. It’s riskier. Developers would prefer a smaller number of units. A smaller project might be 50 units,” Dresdner said, adding he emailed developers to gauge their interest in downtown Monticello’s potential.
“If they didn’t know downtown Monticello real well, I wanted them to have some sense that this is a city that’s got a riverfront, a little bit of a traditional storefront district with some traditional amenities, a library and a community center right in the downtown,” Dresdner said. “I used those features of downtown to start the conversation.”
Leighton said a redeveloped downtown could capture housing growth.
“Building downtown has more risk. It’s more constrained. That development will be small-scale, and require some public financial support. Housing over retail, that’s something that developers are pretty reluctant to do,” Leighton said.
Johnson replied, “So, they want it both ways. They want storefront development, but they don’t want to take the risk. They want somebody else to do it.”
Dresdner said he did a relatively quick urban design analysis of the city. “You do need parking,” he said. “Successful downtowns tend to weave uses together. We recommend shifting the center of downtown from Highway 25 and Broadway to Broadway and Walnut. Just don’t hold onto Broadway, but double-down on Broadway. That is a big play. Second, engage the river and integrate it into downtown with music, boat landings, commerce in the park, and and create a terraced parking lot near West Bridge Park.”
Leighton and Dresdner also recommended getting a four-way stop sign at Walnut and Broadway. That suggestion raised a few eyebrows among steering committee members. Some worried that stopping traffic at that location could back up vehicles coming from shift changes at the Monticello Nuclear Generating Plant.
Leighton said adding stop signs downtown wouldn’t prevent traffic from moving forward to the Broadway and Highway 25 intersection light.
“A stop sign won’t back things up additionally. It will create a pause so people can cross the street when it’s busy,” Leighton said.
Angela Schumann, community development director, said the city needed to be an advocate for itself with Wright County and the Minnesota Department of Transportation when it came to road infrastructure and local development clashing with each other.
“We need to have a stronger voice and hold our ground, especially when we are paying for improvements on county and state highways,” Schumann said.
The next Downtown Small Area Plan Steering Committee meeting will take place at 4:30 p.m. March 23, at the Monticello Community Center. An open house to present the committee’s findings is set for March 30, with a time for that meeting yet to be determined.
Contact Tim Hennagir at [email protected]