NEW ULM — The Planning Commission recommended moving forward with a development plan for workforce housing, despite pushback from neighboring residents.
Hope Housing Foundation (HHF) Dreamville New Ulm, LLC is planning to create 118 units of mixed-used residential property at 1800 North Highland Avenue and 1425-1625 Maplewood Drive. The property totals 7.61 acres and is in the process of being annexed by the city of New Ulm.
HHF project includes six townhomes, eight twin homes fronting Maplewood Drive and two four-story apartment buildings with a total of 48 units in each building. The apartment building will extend from North Highland Avenue to the east along the south side of the property. Of the 118 units, 88 will be classified as workforce housing.
The project received opposition from neighbors living along Maplewood Drive and in the surrounding area. Multiple neighboring property owners voiced concerns about the project during the public hearings.
Opposition to the workforce housing project was due to concerns about the impact on property value and traffic volumes. These objections were presented during public hearings regarding the project.
The planning commission held two public hearings regarding the project and the property. The first hearing was to consider a Planned Unit Development zoning designation. A PUD differs from the traditional subdivision process of development in that zoning standard such as density, setbacks, height limits, and minimum lot sizes may be altered by negotiation and agreement between the developer and the municipality.
The second public hearing was to consider allowing high-density residential land use for this property which was designated low density in the city’s 2007 comprehensive plan.
At the start of the hearing, representatives from HHF spoke on behalf of the project.
Wendy Anderson said there is a need for workforce housing. She said Brown County has a medium income of $87,300. She said market rate and workforce housing would be for people with salaries higher than $50,000.
HHF president Alvin Johnson also attend via videoconference and said his team was excited to bring some of the best housing in the country to Minnesota. He said because the units were energy efficient, and tenants would not be seeing extremely high energy bills in the winter or the summer.
Community comments were led by Jim Skalicky, a Maplewood Drive resident who spoke on behalf of many of the residents in the neighborhood. He presented a petition that he said was signed by 100% of Maplewood Drive, as well as residents on Henle, Ryan and Airport roads who oppose the rezoning.
Skalicky said he and his wife were told when they bought their home that the property across from them was zoned R-1 and R-2. They believed only single-family or twin homes would be built on this land. He said many of the homeowners were told this when buying these houses.
Then they heard two- and four-story apartments were going up on this property, in addition to twin and townhomes. Later, he learned twin and townhomes would be rentals as well.
“We are concerned that is rental property across from us,” Skalicky said. “Anybody that has dealt with rental people, they are a not going to treat that property the same as they own it. We take great pride in our neighborhood, and we would expect the same across the street.”
Skalicky said there was also concern that the wooded area on the east side of the property was not going to be preserved and would instead be taken up by townhouses.
Traffic on Maplewood was also going to be a concern. Skalicky said traffic was already high on that street with people backing out of the driveway.
Parking was another issue. The development did provide parking space for 236 vehicles, but it was not underground parking, and some neighbors questioned what residents would do in the winter.
Others questioned the need for workforce housing. The last housing study was done in 2017, and some of the neighbors believed was out of date. Skalicky said it seems like we need an update on that
One resident from Henele Avenue said workforce housing might include nurses, but also includes anyone getting paid $15 an hour, implying low-income people could live in the development.
City Councilor Les Schultz also spoke during the hearing. The project is going into his ward. Schultz had three concerns about the project: First, the property had not been approved by the airport at this time. He believed the airport would probably approve the project but wanted the commission to prepare it in case it was not approved.
His second concern was traffic. Schultz felt Ryan Road should be developed along with this project to give access to get out of the division without using Highland.
The third concern was dirt removal from the site. He wanted the developers to do their best to keep the dirt down during the construction.
Johnson address some of these concerns. He said HHF has yet to see a situation where new apartments bring down property values. He added that New Ulm’s vacancy rate was 1% or less, making it impossible for businesses to bring in new workers.
Johnson acknowledged that the various people who worked for $15 or $18 at the restaurants in New Ulm, might want to live in this development and would be appalled to hear neighbors talking about them this way.
As for the 2017 housing study, Johnson said he did not know of any city in the United States that has seen a decrease in the need for housing. He believed an update would show a greater need for housing.
Don Jahnke with Midwest Energy Design spoke on the design and construction of the project. Jahnke said several sites were reviewed in the city for this project. This location was chosen because Highland could handle the extra traffic road. There are also plans for sidewalks on both sides of the road. The Maplewood Drive side of the development will have duplexes to avoid overloading that road.
As for the parking, Jahnke said there are many multiple-family projects designed without garages.
Jahnke added that he did take offense at the comments deriding the “kind of people” who lived in rental properties.
“That is your neighborhood. You don’t get to control the kind of people who move in and buy it,” Jahnke said. “If you didn’t want anything across you could have gone ahead and bought the 10 acres yourself and control it. But a city is going to grow. That’s why you have a comprehensive plan and that’s why they built a school there.”
Commissioner Ashley Aukes said she was a long-term renter and took good care of her home, and said she did not have garages at these rentals. Aukes said people of all ages are looking at renting homes. The project would cost $25 million that would be coming into the community.
Planning Commission Chairwoman Anne Earl commented that the 2017 housing study looked into low-income housing but also interviewed retailers who cannot find places for their employers to rent. Earl doubted conditions had changed much since 2017.
“Every property in New Ulm has a waiting list,” she said. “Low income and market rate all have waiting lists. Companies like 3M are having trouble getting people to come in.”
Commissioner Mike Furth said he appreciated the communities comments on this development but said the city had so little available rental space and development on the west side of town was the only open space.
“I see no other options for myself but to support this,” he said.
Aukes made a motion to recommend approval of the PUD for the zoning designation with a second from Furth. It passed unanimously.
The recommendation for the amendment to the comprehensive plan and approval of the preliminary plat was also recommended for approval.
Final approval for the PUD and amendment of the comprehensive plan and plat will come before the City Council Tuesday, Sept. 6.
If approved by the city, the workforce housing project would start grading and site work in the fall/winter of 2022. The construction of the residential structures on the property is proposed for the 2023 construction season.
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