City keeps affordable-housing project on the table

A desperate need for affordable housing in Rochester led the city council on Monday to keep developer Joe Weis' latest proposal on the table, despite a denial recommendation by the city's planning staff and the City Planning and Zoning Commission.

Weis, a longtime Rochester developer and president of Joseph Development LLC, is proposing a 68-unit, four-story apartment building for a site at Fifth Street Northwest and First Avenue Northwest. The development, called The Downtowner, would have 52 two-bedroom units that would rent for about $800 per month and 16 one-bedroom units that would rent for about $700 per month, Chris Stokka said during Monday's city council meeting. Stokka is development manager at MWF Properties, of Minneapolis, Weis' consultant on the project.

Weis plans to finance the development, in part, using the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, which he has done for five other affordable housing projects in Rochester. The apartments would be available to residents whose annual incomes are at or below 60 percent of the area's median income.

However, Weis' residential proposal is within a B-4 zoning district, which is slated for general commercial development. One of the major objections city planning staff and the City Planning and Zoning Commission have is the development's incompatibility with the existing surrounding land uses.

"The use as a residential use in a highly commercialized and industrialized zone appears to be generally incompatible. The proximity to the railroad, density, height compared to the surrounding uses, lack of landscaping, recreation space and buffering all appear to make it incompatible," according to the document.


Surrounding businesses include Cheap Charlie's Cafe, Struve's Paint, MLT Group, the Building Restoration Corp. and Karma Consignments. A couple of the buildings have some apartment units on their second stories. Otherwise, the closest residential area is a couple of blocks away to the north and west. Also, railroad tracks run along the southern border of the site and Civic Center Drive.

Council members also expressed concern about incompatibility, including whether the railroad tracks so close to an apartment complex would be a safety concern, especially for children. But none were ready to reject the proposal, and the council ultimately voted unanimously to continue the public hearing to its Jan. 21 meeting. In the meantime, members said they hope Weis will come back with answers to several of their questions.

"There's a lot of good here, and I have some concerns," said council member Michael Wojcik. "It's walkable, it's transit-oriented, and this is what we need. We desperately need affordable housing here. So, irrespective of what the council does today, it's critical that we keep working with Mr. Weis."

"I like a lot of things about this … the walkability and affordable housing … I'm hung up on the compatibility," said council member Ed Hruska. He asked that Weis and Stokka come back with more detailed answers to the planning staff's and Planning and Zoning Commission's findings, including that the proposal does not meet the city's ordinance for the number of required parking spaces. The other council members agreed.

During the public hearing, some citizens got up to speak against and in favor of Weis' proposal. Some objected to its architectural style, saying the design is not creative nor aesthetically pleasing enough to be in such a visible location near downtown.

Others applauded the proposal for its affordable aspects, proximity to downtown and access to transit.

A couple of citizens said the site Weis is considering has been slated in the Destination Medical Center development plan as the future location of a transit hub, which could include a public parking ramp. However, Wojcik said that since the DMC development plan has not been officially adopted, the council shouldn't consider Weis' proposal in light of the DMC.

"Mr. Weis deserves a fair hearing based on what we have in place today," Wojcik said.


Council President Randy Staver said he doesn't necessarily see a conflict with regard to the DMC plan.

"I understand we can't explicitly consider the DMC plan with this, but this doesn't necessarily preclude that," he said. He said the area could have mixed uses in the future, including parking structures with housing on upper floors.

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