Cloquet Planning Commission: A revised middle school apartment plan passes on second try
Two weeks ago, residents were loud and clear when expressing their objections to a plan to change the existing Cloquet Middle School into a 70-unit apartment building. They thought there were too many apartments, not enough green space and doubte...
Two weeks ago, residents were loud and clear when expressing their objections to a plan to change the existing Cloquet Middle School into a 70-unit apartment building. They thought there were too many apartments, not enough green space and doubted the developer could find enough off-street parking to meet city code.
Guess what? Someone listened.
Sherman Associates, the development company that wants to renovate the historic school building into apartments, returned to the Cloquet Planning Commission Tuesday with a revised plan.
In a new preliminary site plan, they reduced the number of apartments to 50, found 102 parking spaces and proposed turning the paved area between the two school wings into green space and a play area.
Those changes were met with approval from planning commissioners, who recommended 5-0 (with Jesse Berglund and Kelly Johnson absent) Tuesday that the City Council approve the preliminary site plan at its June 7 meeting. (Commissioners had voted 5-2 against approving the previous plan on May 10.)
Acting Planning Commission Chair Uriah Wilkinson explained that the city has ordinances in place to protect its citizens and when all of those ordinances have been met, there is no basis for denial.
“We have a desperate need for housing in this community and with a reputable and experienced developer we not only get to preserve a historical building but address those housing needs,” Wilkinson added, noting that the revised proposal now fits the city’s density limits as well as the parking ratio, leaving no reason to not recommend for approval.
The renovated building would still retain many of the school building features, including some blackboards or lockers in individual apartments, plus the auditorium, something the new middle school will not have. The swimming pool and gymnasium will be torn down to create more space for parking. The new plan calls for 50 mixed-income residential units consisting of 27 units rented at 50 percent of area median income, 13 units at 60 percent of AMI and 10 market rate units.
Officials left no stone unturned for Tuesday’s planning commission meeting. In addition to Sherman Associates representatives Diane Dyste and Paul Keenan bringing more detailed site plans, Cloquet Planning and Zoning Administrator Al Cottingham presented again, as well as Cloquet Development Director Holly Butcher - who described the process the school district took to solicit and evaluate development proposals for the building - and City Attorney Bill Helwig.
Helwig explained that because the school is an existing building and in legal terms a legal “non-conforming building” in light of today’s zoning standards, then as current zoning code requirements such as green space and don’t apply to existing built sites.
“Because it’s an existing nonconformity, you’re not going to move it to address those issues,” Cottingham explained after the meeting. “Of course, they still have to address things like parking.”
With 102 off-street parking spaces for 50 apartments, it seems the issue - which was a big one for neighbors as well as the planning commission at the previous meeting - is moot.
Wilkinson pointed out that, although it was not a public hearing, “in the interest of transparency and a genuine desire to hear feedback from the public,” the commission opened up the floor for comments and heard feedback from both sides. Cottingham said approximately nine or 10 residents addressed the planning commission. Of those, seven favored the development, including school district officials, Community Memorial Hospital CEO Rick Breuer and Cloquet Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kelly Zink, who also wrote a letter to the city.
Breuer said hospital employees sometimes struggle to find affordable housing so the new apartments would help. Zink also said local businesses are looking for housing for their employees, and noted that keeping the auditorium will be a great asset to the community.
Should the council approve the preliminary site plan, Sherman Associates would have to come back to the city with a final site plan and request for property rezoning (unless the school district chooses to rezone) and also amend the site in the city’s Comprehensive Plan from the current institutional community site.
Sherman Associates should be notified by November if they are authorized tax credit financing and would apply for property rezoning and final site plans by early spring 2017. Officials hope the new middle school will be ready for occupation by the fall of 2017.
The Cloquet City Council will vote on authorizing a resolution of support for Sherman Associates to apply for tax credit financing in recognition of their preliminary site plan at 7 p.m. meeting June 7 at Cloquet City Hall.