Details on the end points of a planned downtown circulator remain in flux as Rochester prepares to apply for federal funds.
Olmsted County commissioners are hoping to get answers to some of their questions Tuesday, following their regular 3 p.m. meeting in board chambers of the city-county Government Center.
“We’ll come prepared to talk about the next steps in the transit villages and transit future discussion,” Rochester Deputy City Administrator Aaron Parrish told commissioners earlier this month.
The update is slated to focus on a pair of planned transportation hubs, also known as transit villages. One is planned at the current Mayo Clinic west parking lot along Second Street Southwest, and another is expected to be created in the Graham Park area. The proposed circulator would provide regular transit between the two, with up to nine dedicated stops along the way.
The exact location has been an issue of contention between some city and county officials.
At one point, the plan appeared to focus on the north section of Graham Park, as proposed in the county’s 2018 master plan, but the county agreed to purchase the former Seneca Foods canning facility for $5.6 million in February, and commissioners have considered that a better location for the transit hub.
“I’m really not interested in selling park land,” Commissioner Gregg Wright said during the recent discussion with Parrish. “It’s finite; it’s all we have. If we parcel it out piece by piece, it’s gone.”
While Wright was one of two commissioners opposed to the Seneca purchase, he has noted the purchase means parkland can be used for other purposes.
“I’m concerned that this is part of the conversation,” he said of the potential to put parking facilities in the park.
Three preliminary concepts for a transit hub in the area have been proposed by the University of Minnesota Design Center, working for the city and Destination Medical Center Economic Development Agency.
Two of the options would place the circulator endpoint at the site of the Seneca plant, but a third would locate it along Broadway Avenue, at the north end of the park. Either location could be served by a circulator route on Broadway or Third Avenue.
In either concept, development of potential housing and retail space is shown to cover the Seneca site, the northern portion of the existing park and land that currently houses various county buildings near the park.
RT Rybak, chairman of the DMC Corp board, said the additional development is key to the transit plan.
“I don’t see that as isolation,” he said, noting parking facilities would be used heavily by commuters during weekdays, but would also benefit year-round activity at Graham Park, which the county plans to activate through development of a new expo center and festival grounds.
A transit center built at the site of the existing Graham Park campground could provide the best access to park activities, but the Seneca site is seen as having an advantage for encouraging other development in the area.
While the city needs to define a preferred route and transit mode for the circulator by the middle of next month to stay on track with an application for federal funding by next September, Parrish said details on the transit villages can wait.
Rochester Mayor Kim Norton, however, has said she wants to make sure the original concepts stay in the front of people’s minds.
“What I don’t want to have happen is to start talking about two transit villages and have them become park-and-rides,” she said, noting the recent circulator focus has been about commuters, rather than other amenities, which could include housing.
Olmsted County Board Chairman Jim Bier, who sits on the DMCC board with Rybak and Norton, said transportation needs to be in place to motivate other development.
“I’m confident the market will respond in a quick fashion,” he said, noting developers want to see local government moving forward with infrastructure before investing in the area.
Rybak echoed the idea and noted the same is likely to be true for the Mayo Clinic property on Second Street, which could start with a Mayo-owned parking structure for staff and expand with a public parking ramp, housing and other development opportunities.
Norton again cited some concerns but agreed that has been the goal.
“It’s not just Mayo Clinic staff that is going to be using this, I hope,” she said. “It’s about the community that is built around these villages and it’s about other employees who work downtown.”
Meanwhile, the DMCC board is slated to hold a special meeting soon to vote on the preferred transit mode and route for the circulator, and the Rochester City Council is expected to vote on Oct. 21.