Columbia Heights council presented with city hall/library proposal

Direction put on hold until council hears from Library Task Force

Dunbar Development Corporation is proposing a mixed-used project featuring a library, city hall and senior housing at the existing business center on 40th and Central avenues. (Sun Focus photo by Kassie Petermann)
Dunbar Development Corporation is proposing a mixed-used project featuring a library, city hall and senior housing at the existing business center on 40th and Central avenues. (Sun Focus photo by Kassie Petermann)

The City Council, Library Board and the Library Task Force heard about a proposal on Jan. 24 for the business center on 40th and Central avenues becoming a mixed-use building that would include a new library, city hall and senior housing.

In October 2011, the City Council approved the formation of a task force to plan the possible replacement of the library with a single building, or a building that would include both a library and city hall, and they have been meeting on a regular basis.

A major tenant, University of Minnesota Physicians, has left the business center, which leaves the building with a 70 percent vacancy rate.

If built, Dunbar Development Corporation’s mixed-use proposal would be owned by the city/Economic Development Authority. Dunbar constructed a city hall/library development in Waconia, Minn., and is constructing a city hall/county library/sheriff’s office in Norwood Young America, Minn.

The meeting on Jan. 24 at city hall focused on discussing the merits of the proposal, immediate impressions and whether the proposal resonates as a strong redevelopment site. Community Development Director Scott Clark said it was too soon to discuss the proposal from a financial standpoint.

The city purchased the former Mady’s site on Central Avenue on Dec. 13, 2012, Clark said, and that future redevelopment site would be in close proximity to the Dunbar proposal and could develop strong synergy and rejuvenate the downtown area.

“This is a pretty exciting time to talk about a bold and innovative idea,” he said.

Frank Dunbar, president of Dunbar Development Corporation, said the proposal involves the library and city hall sharing conference rooms, and both would be located on the first floor. The proposed library totals about 20,000 square feet, and the city hall square footage totaling 9,175 is based on a 1999 report.

Dunbar said the 60 units of market rate senior housing up through the sixth floor would be for people ages 55 and older. There would be full-time staff and guest suites for when relatives visit. The second floor would include amenities such as a club room, a hair salon, an exercise room and a health care room.

Each one- and two-bedroom apartment would have a washer and dryer and a dishwasher, and individual storage rooms would be provided to residents. This senior housing would be for people who want to get rid of their single-family home, but who still want to stay in their community and live in a more socially connected facility that serves their needs, Dunbar said.

He showed renderings of the proposed facility, which would consist of 18,000 square feet of new construction that would tie into the existing building.

Dave Larson, a member of the Library Task Force, asked how the proposed project would affect the market value of the rest of downtown Columbia Heights, if it moves forward.

Clark said the project could strengthen the downtown area, adding that one of the biggest issues in the city is the high amount of vacant commercial buildings.

“I think there can be nothing but an upward move. … I can’t imagine that this would be nothing but positive,” he said.

“I think the last thing we need is another city hall,” said Councilmember Bruce Nawrocki. He asked about the proposal’s rough cost to the city.

Dunbar said he didn’t know what the cost would be, and he would be “shooting in the dark” if he put forth a number.

The city is selling Parkview Villa, Nawrocki said, and questioned how the city can justify getting back into the senior housing business.

(The Housing and Redevelopment Authority, HRA, has owned Parkview Villa, at 965 40th Ave. N.E., for about 36 years and is partnering with a nonprofit developer for the sale of the complex.)

Clark said Parkview Villa South is a market rate project and Parkview Villa North is a public housing agency project, and the city is moving away from the public housing agency aspect.

The intention would be for the city to contract with an agency to run the proposed senior housing, said City Manager Walt Fehst. He noted that the housing would not be subsidized, it would be market rate.

Fehst said the market rate housing rent would be $600 to $1,300 a month and there would be no monthly meetings. The city would receive reports on how the senior housing is running.

“You say we wouldn’t have any involvement, but if they went belly-up or it didn’t work for them, then we would end up in the business whether we liked it or not,” Nawrocki said.

The project would allow for more redevelopment on the current city hall site, Fehst said. City staff would move to a much more economically efficient building with better public access, and the mixed-use building would make a statement on Central Avenue. He said it would also enhance opportunities at the Mady’s site down the street.

Larson said the task force wants the children who attend the library out of the basement, which has no windows. He also said the library floods during heavy rains and the teen section is in the hallway.

Nile Harper, another Library Task Force member, said the existing 16,000-square-foot library only has 18 parking spots, so the proposal has major parking assets. (Clark believes the business center’s parking ramp has 369 stalls.)

“It’s an exciting proposal,” Harper said. “I think it’s a winner at every point.”

“I think it looks great,” said Library Task Force member Tricia Conway. “There’s a definite wow factor there.”

She spoke highly of the proposed library’s large windows that would face Central Avenue.

“It gets away from the image that Columbia Heights has regrettably had of being a place where you get your car fixed or get parts,” said Library Board member Catherine Vesley.

She said it would be great for the Heights Theatre and the adjacent Dairy Queen and would spur development on the Mady’s property.

Councilmember Tami Diehm said that for many, the Central Avenue corridor is a priority and she’s excited to see some interest. Whether it’s the right location and design, she would defer to the task force’s recommendations.

Diehm said she would like more information on the quality of the business center – if any long-term improvements are needed. She also has some concerns about the city getting into the housing ownership business, and she would be interested in hearing how other communities have dealt with that experience.

“It has to be taken into consideration how much more debt can we expect the people to pay,” Nawrocki said, noting that there is debt for the public safety building and debt for the two new liquor stores. He said the existing library still has merits and life in it.

Diehm said the city needs to be good stewards of the public money and also needs to invest in the community so that housing values are preserved and start to go back up rather than decreasing year after year.

“One of the ways we can do that is by attracting new development to our town,” she said. “If this is one way to start, then we need to give that some consideration.”

“That changes the image of our community dramatically,” Mayor Gary Peterson said of the proposal. “It’s an opportunity to change our community.”

“How much money do you want to put into a really old, sub-standard facility?” Vesley asked.

She said the library floods, the list of maintenance items and improvements is endless, and the building can’t handle any more computer substations.

“Certainly there is the additional indebtedness, but this would be a good time to do it. It’s an excellent location and there is a wow factor. … You have to look at the cost of maintaining a decaying facility that is basically inadequate,” she said.

Mayor Peterson said if the city were to move forward with the proposal, then Northeast Bank would be displaced, and the city doesn’t want to lose them.

“We have had a relationship with Columbia Heights for about 35 years, since 1978,” said Tom Beck, CEO of Northeast Bank. “Our relationship with the city and the schools is incredibly important to us.”

Beck said that bank representatives attended the meeting to listen to the proposal, and their goal is to maintain their relationship with the city in Columbia Heights.

“We understand that the bank wants to remain part of the puzzle,” Clark said. “We recognized that early on in the process, how important that is.”

“I’m really all for this,” said Larson of the proposed project. He said in the last census there was a big increase in Columbia Heights’ population for years 0-5 and wants to keep young families coming into the city.

Clark added that in the last census, the mean age dropped to about 35 in Columbia Heights, so the community is getting younger and there are a lot more families moving in.

The City Council had an executive work session on Feb. 4 to discuss rough construction numbers and what they feel would be a reasonable price for acquisition.

The morning of Feb. 5, Clark said the council has not given city staff any formal direction on whether to proceed with the proposal. They are waiting to hear the Library Task Force’s overall recommendations before making any decisions. The task force could present to the council in late February or early March.


Contact Kassie Petermann at [email protected]