NEW ULM — The Urban Planning Commission has recommended going ahead with a development plan for workforce housing, despite the reluctance of local residents.
Hope Housing Foundation (HHF) Dreamville New Ulm, LLC plans to create 118 mixed-use residential property units at 1800 North Highland Avenue and 1425-1625 Maplewood Drive. The property totals 7.61 acres and is being annexed by the City of New Ulm.
The HHF project includes six townhouses, eight twin homes facing 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 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 and around Maplewood Drive. Several neighboring owners expressed their 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 the public hearings concerning 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 development process in that zoning standards such as density, setbacks, height limits, and minimum lot sizes can be changed by negotiation and agreement between the developer and the municipality.
The second public hearing was to consider permitting 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 of HHF spoke on behalf of the project.
Wendy Anderson said there was a need for workforce housing. She said Brown County has an average income of $87,300. She said the market rate and workforce housing would be for people earning more than $50,000.
HHF President Alvin Johnson also attended via video conference and said his team was thrilled to bring some of the best housing in the country to Minnesota. He said because the units were energy efficient and tenants wouldn’t see extremely high energy bills in winter or summer.
Community comments were led by Maplewood Drive resident Jim Skalicky who spoke on behalf of many neighborhood residents. He submitted a petition which he says has been signed by 100% of Maplewood Drive, as well as residents of Henle, Ryan and Airport roads who oppose the rezoning.
Skalicky said he and his wife were told when buying their home that the property in front of them was zoned R-1 and R-2. They believed that only single or semi-detached houses would be built on this land. He said many homeowners were made aware of this when purchasing these homes.
Then they heard that two- and four-story apartments were being built on this property, in addition to twin houses and townhouses. Later, he learned that the twin houses and townhouses would also be rentals.
“We are concerned that there is a rental property in front of us”, Skalicky said. “Anyone who has dealt with tenants will not treat this property the same as they own it. We are very proud of our neighborhood and would expect the same across the street.
Skalicky also said the wooded area on the east side of the property would not be preserved and would instead be taken up with townhouses.
Traffic on Maplewood was also going to be a problem. Skalicky said traffic was already high on that street, with people coming out of the driveway.
Parking was another issue. The development provided parking space for 236 vehicles, but it was not underground parking, and some neighbors wondered what the residents would do in the winter.
Others questioned the need for workforce housing. The last housing survey was done in 2017 and some of the neighbors thought it was outdated. Skalicky said it looks like we need an update on this
A Henele Avenue resident said labor housing could include nurses, but also anyone paid $15 an hour, implying low-income people could live in the development.
Councilman Les Schultz also spoke at the hearing. The project goes to his neighborhood. Schultz had three concerns about the project: First, the property had not yet been approved by the airport. He thought 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 that Ryan Road should be developed with this scheme to provide access to exit the division without using Highland.
The third concern was the removal of dirt from the site. He wanted developers to do their best to reduce dirt during construction.
Johnson addresses some of these concerns. He said HHF has yet to see a situation where new apartments drive down property values. He said New Ulm’s vacancy rate was 1% or less, making it difficult for businesses to hire new workers.
Johnson acknowledged that the various people who worked for $15 or $18 in restaurants in New Ulm might want to live in this development and would be appalled to hear neighbors talking about them that way.
Regarding the 2017 housing study, Johnson said he is not aware of any city in the United States that has seen a decrease in housing need. He believed an update would show a greater need for housing.
Don Jahnke of Midwest Energy Design spoke about the design and construction of the project. Jahnke said several sites have been examined in the city for this project. This location was chosen because Highland could handle the extra traffic road. Sidewalks are also provided on both sides of the road. The Maplewood Drive side of the development will have duplexes to avoid overloading this road.
As for parking, Jahnke said there are many multi-family projects designed without garages.
Jahnke added that he took offense to the comments mocking the “kind of people” who lived in rental properties.
“This is your neighborhood. You don’t control the kind of people who move in and buy it,” said Jahnke. “If you didn’t want to cross anything, you could have gone ahead and bought the 10 acres yourself and controlled it. But a city will grow. That’s why you have a global plan and that’s why they built a school there.
Commissioner Ashley Aukes said she was a long-term tenant and took good care of her home, and said she had no garages in these rentals. Aukes said people of all ages were considering renting homes. The project would cost $25 million which would be donated to the community.
Planning Commission chair Anne Earl said the 2017 housing study looked at low-income housing but also interviewed retailers who could not find rental accommodation for their employers. Earl doubted conditions had changed much since 2017.
“Every property in New Ulm has a waiting list,” she says. “Low incomes and market rates all have waiting lists. Companies like 3M are struggling to bring people in.
Commissioner Mike Furth said he appreciated community feedback on this development, but said the town had so little rental space available and the development on the west side of town was the only open space.
“I don’t see any other options for me than to support this,” he said.
Aukes made a motion to recommend PUD approval for the zoning designation with a second from Furth. It passed unanimously.
The recommendation for modification of the master plan and approval of the preliminary plan was also recommended for approval.
The final approval of the PUD and the modification of the overall plan and the plat will be presented to the municipal council on Tuesday September 6th.
If approved by the city, the workforce housing project would begin grading and site work in fall/winter 2022. Construction of the residential structures on the property is proposed for the spring season. construction 2023.