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Planning commission delays vote on Alatus project

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After hours of discussion and public comment, the Rochester Planning & Zoning Commission voted to delay its decision on a $110 million Second Street Southwest housing and commercial project late Wednesday.

Developer Alatus LLC brought a preliminary plan for a high-end 13-story housing and commercial complex to be built on more than two acres at the southwest corner of 14th Avenue Southwest and Second Street.

Beside putting it in the shadow of Mayo Clinic's Saint Marys campus, the plan calls for the development to extend into the quiet Folwell neighborhood. Many residents of the neighborhood shared their concerns about the project, but it was a plea from the developer that spurred the vote to continue the decision.

That means an updated version of the preliminary plan will go before the planning commission on Aug. 10. The commission then has the choice to recommend the city council approve or deny the project. If the city council approves the preliminary plan, a final development plan would go back to the planning commission. The city council would then have the last say on approving the final plan during a public hearing.

City staff members had recommended 18 major changes to the preliminary plan and requested more details. The major concern was the lack of a finalized traffic study on the proposed changes to the Folwell neighborhood's streets and the impact on the Folwell Elementary School. That was brought up in public comments by many neighbors, like Mark and Lori Bransford, Kevin Lund and Della Derscheid.

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Alatus submitted a preliminary traffic study to the city, but it had not yet been approved by a city engineer and was not given to the commission for consideration. City staff requested "the completion of a Traffic Impact Report and implementation of mitigation recommendations."

Despite positive statements about the developer and the project, the commissioners were put off by the lack of details.

"I'm supportive of the project, enthusiastic even, but there's just not enough information," said commissioner Paul Sims, just before he made the first of two motions to continue so the developer could work out more details.

Commissioner Regina Seabrook seconded his motion. It failed to pass, with Tom Hill, Steve Sherwood and Kraig Durst voting against it.

Hill then made a motion to recommend the city council approve Alatus' preliminary plan. Commissioners Lindsey Meek, Wade Goodenberger, Seabrook and Sims indicated that they would vote against it, despite their positive comments about the project.

"I can't see this (proposal) meeting the preliminary criteria," said Goodberger. "I like the building, but I can't in good conscience vote to move it forward."

However, before a vote could be taken, Chris Osmundson of Alatus requested that the commission continue the issue.

That request reversed the situation. Hill, who had just opposed Sims' motion to continue, made his own motion to continue. Durst seconded it and the motion was passed unanimously by the weary commissioners.

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Bob Lux, the president of Alatus, had told the commission earlier that continuing the issue could cause problems with the project's deadlines for purchase agreements. Following the meeting, Lux said he thought having until Aug. 10 would give his team time enough to flesh out more details for the commission and still meet their purchase deadlines.

Earlier in the meeting, Lux said he believed developers "get the best project by listening and adjusting." His staff reported that they planned to reduce the size of project's parking ramp from 883 spaces to 609. The massive size of the ramp, which would feed onto 15th Avenue, had been a major source of concern from the neighbors.

The change eliminated any contract parking from the ramp, but still supported the project's 359 apartments and townhomes, commercial businesses and 70 public parking spaces.

In response to city staff critiques, the Alatus team also proposed to increase the distance the buildings were set back from the street and eliminate a 52-foot spire on top of the building. There was a concern the spire might cause problems for the Mayo One helicopter, which flies from the nearby Saint Marys Hospital.

The changes brought praise from the commissioners and some in the public for the developers' willingness to be flexible. Others saw the changes as something else.

"It feels like a re-design on the fly to me," said Mark Bransford during one of times making comments to the board. "It doesn't feel fully cooked."

Bransford was one of 14 to 16 community members to comment on the project. Here are some of the comments made during the meeting.

* "It's a tight fit in the neighborhood ... It's like trying to jam a foot into a shoe two sizes too small," Lori Bransford, Mark Bransford's wife.

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* "I'd like to bring my support to the table … I'm really excited about the project," said Nick Powers, who manages the nearby Canadian Honker restaurant.

* "It casts an unacceptable shadow over our neighborhood … There are more questions than answers about this project," said Olmsted County Judge Kevin Lund, who lives nearby.

"I was not happy when I learned my business will need to move … In spite of that, I strongly support the project," said Mary Jo Majerus, who owns Healing Touch Spa On Second in the Brentwood on 2nd hotel and commercial building. It is slated to be demolished to make way for the project.

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