EDA commissioners table small area study

Preliminary ideas for improving the downtown have included adding a fountain, a brewpub, a homemade candy and sandwich shop, and an ice cream vendor near West and East Bridge Parks or an outdoor amphitheater. This graphic shows a transformed area around West Bridge Park. (Graphics Courtesy City of Monticello/Cuningham Group/Tangible Consulting Services)
Preliminary ideas for improving the downtown have included adding a fountain, a brewpub, a homemade candy and sandwich shop, and an ice cream vendor near West and East Bridge Parks or an outdoor amphitheater. This graphic shows a transformed area around West Bridge Park. (Graphics Courtesy City of Monticello/Cuningham Group/Tangible Consulting Services)

The study also recommends zoning and design guideline changes along with signage and park improvements as initial implementation action items.

Finally, the study supports building on existing assets through reinvestment while distinguishing itself from the previous Embracing Downtown Plan (2010) which sought to create a more suburban style, automobile dependent development pattern in the city’s core area.

Preliminary ideas for improving the downtown have included adding a fountain, a brewpub, a homemade candy and sandwich shop, and an ice cream vendor near West and East Bridge Parks or an outdoor amphitheater.

The plan includes three components, which would become appendix documents to the city’s comprehensive plan, similar to the 2010 Embracing Downtown Plan.

The components include the plan document, a market context and a retail vitality study.
“This is really a critical time for Monticello,” Dresdner said. “It’s the heart of your community. You are in a great position to change the identity of it, and change some things that aren’t working well.”

During his introductory presentation, Dresdner showed a fly-over video that walked EDA commissioners through the plan.

“This plan is less about shopping and more about the experience of downtown,” Dresdner said. “It has less reliance on large projects and property assembly. There is more reliance on small, incremental investments.”

The study contains strategies to enhance the core as a vibrant, walkable district with a continued mix of commercial and service businesses as well as reinforcing the vision for additional housing in the downtown core. It also suggests enhanced parks, public space, pathway and signage improvements.
The study contains strategies to enhance the core as a vibrant, walkable district with a continued mix of commercial and service businesses as well as reinforcing the vision for additional housing in the downtown core. It also suggests enhanced parks, public space, pathway and signage improvements.

The four main goals of the Downtown Small Area Study include shifting the center of downtown away from Pine Street (Highway 25), and hold onto Broadway as the city’s main street, engage the river, improve the Pine Street experience and infilling with lots of small investments, a few medium sized and one or two large ones, Dresdner said.

“This is a plan that has a nuanced approach to parking. If you are going to a place for more than two hours, your tolerance for walking more than a block is much higher than if you are going to Walgreen’s to grab some Band-Aids. “We are not talking parking garages in Monticello,” Dresdner said.

Tapper said he had concerns with the quarter-block development strategy that’s a key study element
“It’s harder to get higher end amenities in a quarter-block, but what’s nice about the scale is it provides variety. You can have more density on the half-blocks,” Dresdner said.

Leighton said developers are going to value-test this by looking at specific pieces of property. “I don’t believe that’s there’s anything in the plan that the build-out has to be on the scale of a quarter block.”
Johnson said that by and large, the main concepts in the study were good, but implementation would be a problem.

“As I go through the details of this plan, it’s clear that there’s micro management,” Johnson said. “There won’t be a lot of flexibility, only nuance, to a lot of the development. I find that there’s conflict within this plan.”

Johnson said there wasn’t enough attention paid to parking in the plan “Based on parking spaces per 1,000 square feet, we’ll lose about 20 percent of our parking with this plan,” he said. “Reducing parking will be an issue with developers.” Johnson asked if the city was going to let economics and the market drive the plan. “There’s not enough population downtown to support retail,” he said. “Parking and congestion are soft-pedaled in this plan. If we are going to go to the Monticello Planning Commission and ask them to develop ordinances and setbacks to accommodate parking, I think we have some conflicts here. We need to discuss those issues and details.”

Lloyd Hilgart, one of two Monticello City Council representatives on the EDA, asked Johnson why he didn’t bring up his concerns earlier.

“[Parking] has been brought up at several working sessions,” Johnson said. “Businesses in a six block area need the parking. Need to make some sort of accommodation for businesses. We’ve been looking for redevelopment downtown for the last 14 years and gotten very little,” Johnson said. “Developers have said they just can’t deal with the environment they are seeing. I don’t see where making requirements more restrictive is going to help the situation.”

Schumann said one of city staff’s goals going into the small area study project involved the EDA and the city own a lot of property in the downtown area.

“We are responsible as staff for conveying your vision to developers as to what you would like to see on these properties, and in some cases, with the Embracing Downtown plan, it was difficult to do that,” Schumann said. “What are we doing with the large parking areas and vacant land? City staff is looking for guidance from you as policy makers. As a staff, we hear about flexibility, we hear a lot about minimizing risk from developers.”

Davidson said the Embracing Downtown Plan was overwhelming. “My impression with this plan was to shrink that. No matter what we put on paper, we have to leave ourselves with some options.”

Tapper then asked Dresdner and Leighton if they knew of any developers who were in love with the study.
“We didn’t approach this as an exercise in following the market,” Leighton said. “We looked at taking the most common thing that might be proposed by developers in general. We talked to developers that tend to go into small communities. We talked to the Beard Group. We talked to a senior housing developer. Both of those developers responded positively,” Leighton said. “And we talked to five people in the development community.”

Tapper then asked, “Does that mean they were willing to put their money on the table?” Leighton replied,”Potentially.”

Commissioner Tracy Hinz said there was minimal response from current business owners and minimal response from community members in developing the small area study.

“How does a project like this move forward with what seems to be like such seemingly minimal investment from key stakeholders?” she asked.

Jacob Thunander, the city’s community and economic development assistant, fielded Hinz’s question.

“I don’t think we had minimal involvement from the general public,” Thunander said. “I feel that certainly, the outreach was certainly robust. This isn’t a national election. People participated in both open houses, as well as the outreach that we did at the community center. It was relatively clear what they aspired to see [as a vision] for Monticello. With regards to the current business owners, we did interview and talk with several businesses and property owners in the area. I don’t know the percentages, and I can’t speak for the full outreach effort, but there was public outreach.”

Hinz said she was struck by the number of participants at the events she was at, considering the population of Monticello.

“I know you were hoping for more robust conversations with business owners that attended. A lot of key people, in my opinion, were missing,” she said.

Schumann addressed meeting attendance in her comments. “I think that as with any public project or any public meeting, people lead busy lives, and it’s hard to get them to a meeting,” she said. “I want to be clear that the steering committee meetings, those were open, public meetings, but we didn’t seek the public to attend those steering committee meetings. Having said that, there were two public meetings, and the one at West Bridge Park was well attended.”

Johnson agreed with Hinz about citizen participation in the small area study process.

“It was kind of a wish list situation, but what would work from an economic standpoint is a different thing,” Johnson said. “Our job [as an economic development authority] is to buffer that with the realities of economic development. Our ultimate goal as an economic development authority is to maximize tax valuation for the city, and hopefully, provide living wage jobs. If we have a project that isn’t going to produce that, ultimately, we are wasting our time.”

This Monticello Downtown Small Area Study graphic shows a view looking down Walnut Street, looking toward the river.
This Monticello Downtown Small Area Study graphic shows a view looking down Walnut Street, looking toward the river.

Tapper said he had some of the same concerns. “To me, the only viable retail concern [in the small area study area] is some kind of food establishment.” Tapper said. “I’m not sure about other businesses, and if they are really going to be able to make it in this area, given the economics of what I see, and the difficulty of walking and parking downtown. There’s a tremendous amount of public resources that are needed to accomplish what’s proposed here.”

For example, Tapper said re-configuring Walnut Street to the river would require a “fair” amount of public funds. “I don’t think the city is willing to spend millions to get this started.” Tapper also questioned the addition of an amphitheater in West Bridge Park.

“Yes, all of the improvements in this plan cost money,” Dresdner said. “But there are things that cost almost nothing that you can do in the next six months.”

Dresdner cited curb extensions on Broadway and quarter-block projects as examples. He added the proposed amphitheater in West Bridge Park could be designed in a flexible manner.

“The reason for the heavy redesign of that park is getting people downtown,” he said. “There can be a lot more park design that can go forward. I would start thinking about a single riverfront park.”

Johnson said a successful project like what’s being proposed with Monticello’s small area study already exists in Elk River. “We need to balance [something like] that,” Johnson said.

Commissioner Jon Morphew said he appreciated the breadth and depth of the small area study, but thought it was too reliant on housing in downtown Monticello.

“This isn’t a development plan,” Dresdner said. “Eventually, this will become a building plan. In July, we’ll have an implementation workshop. The intent of that workshop is to get the plan into the DNA of the city and the implementing bodies as much as possible. Each of those bodies use their networks as much as possible. That’s an important part of the plan.”

City Administrator Jeff O’Neill said the small area study attempts to take advantage of all the attributes of the city’s downtown area and improve them.

“It’s a hodgepodge and a mix of buildings and parking right now,” O’Neill said. “This plan attempts to build on a theme, and develop an area that’s walkable. It’s a good effort towards taking advantage of the area’s attributes.”

O’Neill said he wanted to say something positive about downtown development plans that the city has done in the past. “In 1997, we did a plan, and what resulted from that was the Monticello Community Center, the Marquette Bank building, and Town Center right across the street that replaced a propane tank farm, all sidewalks and lights and green space in this area,” he said.

Johnson wanted the EDA to sit down in a workshop session with the planning commission to work out nuts and bolts issues before fully adopting the study.

“The bottom line is you have public and private property, and you are trying to mesh them,” Hilgart said. “I like this plan, but my issue, and this is a general statement, we can draw all this stuff up, and it looks great on paper, but will it actually work? I’m not leaning either way, but until you control an entire block, or use enough tax increment financing to make it, everyone has a different vision. That’s the issue that I see.”

After Johnson made his motion to table for further review and commissioners voted, Tapper said he still had a very difficult time seeing how retail establishments that might land in the study area could make it in a redeveloped downtown.

“I think this area needs to be absorbed back into the city as residential,” Tapper said. “In my vision, a lot of currently what we call downtown would be gone. In 10 years, it would be multistory buildings.”
The Monticello Planning Commission will conduct a July 11 public hearing date to review the Downtown Small Area Study.

That public hearing was ordered by Monticello City Council members during their June 26 regular meeting. Similar to the Embracing Downtown Plan, the Downtown Small Area Plan is proposed as an appendix to the Monticello Comprehensive Plan.

The Downtown Small Area Plan provides guidance on land use, economic development, parks, and transportation components of the comprehensive plan specific to the core downtown area.
As such, a comprehensive plan amendment to incorporate the document and amend text within the existing comprehensive plan is necessary and requires a public hearing process.

Councilmember Charlotte Gabler asked that setting a public hearing date be pulled from the council’s consent agenda. “Since the EDA tabled this, is it worth calling for a public hearing for the planning commission if this hasn’t been accepted by the folks that originated the plan? Gabler asked.

Schumann replied, “We aren’t aware of when we will be able to schedule a meeting with the EDA and the various bodies that the Cuningham Group would like to bring together, but we have erred on the side of caution in calling for the public hearing on July 11. Certainly, if we are not ready, we’ll table that hearing and continue action.”

Contact Tim Hennagir at [email protected]