‘There’s got to be a common ground’

Published 9:15 am Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Discussions became heated Tuesday night at a special meeting of the Albert Lea Planning Commission as about a half-dozen members of the public and business community expressed thoughts about a proposed design standards ordinance for the city.

The group questioned many parts of the ordinance, including whether the proposed guidelines were too restrictive, whether the guidelines should apply to buildings undergoing renovations, whether there should be a range available for amount of windows required and whether the standards should apply simply for the main entrance of businesses, to name a few of the concerns.

Based on how the conversation was going at one point in the discussion, one commission member even asked the group whether they thought there should be a design ordinance at all.

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The discussion lasted more than 90 minutes, until the commission voted to defer discussion on the ordinance until an Oct. 20 workshop. Members of the public and business community can submit worded recommendations for the ordinance prior to the workshop. On Nov. 3, there will be a continued public hearing to review changes.

“As a member of the council, it’s obvious to me that we need more discussion about this,” said Councilor Larry Baker, who is an ex-officio member on the commission. “We could sit here and talk about this all night and we’re not going to solve anything. It’s like everything else, everybody has a different opinion, different perspective.

“You hear both sides of the fence and there’s got to be a common ground somewhere in between.”

The design ordinance, which applies specifically to businesses in the B-2 Community Business District zone. That includes the streets of East and West Main Street, Blake Avenue, South Broadway Avenue, one side of Southeast Broadway Avenue and parts of North Bridge Avenue.

As proposed, the ordinance first states that the vertical surfaces of buildings should be made of “noncombustible, non-degradable and low-maintenance construction material, including but not limited to face brick, architectural or decorative block, natural stone … Painting of materials is not allowed.”

It says all buildings facing a public street should have 50 percent of the first-floor level in windows, of which only 10 percent should be covered with signs. No metal or wood-siding buildings would be allowed.

Albert Lea Community Development Director Bob Graham said the idea of a design ordinance goes back to the 1940s when comprehensive plans started mentioning it. Over the years, the idea has repeatedly resurfaced.

Graham said the proposed ordinance was something to start a dialogue. It applies to new development, not existing development, he noted, adding most communities do not have a design ordinance.

“If we’re going to be a Blue Zone community, if we want to be recognized as a vitality community, what do we want people to see when they come into town?” he asked.

“Blue Zone” is a reference to the ongoing AARP/Blue Zones Vitality Project happening this year in Albert Lea, an effort to add years to lives through healthy living.

Randy Kehr, executive director of the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce, said he thinks the proposal is “fundamentally flawed in its simplicity.”

“We can develop standards that give us the type of building we desire without inhibiting development of a new retail or the relocation of existing retail,” he said.

He went through slides of existing businesses in the city, pointing out how he considers many of them to be attractive buildings, but that they would not pass an ordinance if they were new buildings.

Home Solutions Midwest Owner Paul Field questioned why siding could not be used as an acceptable building material. It would cut from his business, he noted, which would in turn mean less employees.

He also talked about the difference in costs of siding versus other materials.

Albert Lea Economic Development Agency Director Dan Dorman said it’s hard for him to visualize what the standard would mean without looking at the buildings, or pictures of the buildings.

Dorman said he thinks the intent of the ordinance is good, but it needs to have some further definition in it.

He said when he looks at the typical buildings for Kohl’s, Target, Red Lobster and Panera Bread in other communities, most people say their buildings are attractive — but they would not meet the proposed standards.

He asked what he and the others in attendance could do to make the ordinance better.

One audience member questioned whether any building constructed in the last five years meets the proposed ordinance.

Ryan Nolander, ALEDA business development director, said he would like to look at other communities in Greater Minnesota to see what they’re doing for design standards.

Commissioner Grace Haukoos described the Albert Lea community as “schizoprenic” in its buildings.

“I think we have an obligation as a community to help protect the investment of the responsible business people who invest in our community,” she said.

Commissioner Craig Havener said, drawing on his personal experience, he wouldn’t go to a community if it didn’t have a design standard.

“If you have design standards, at least you’re taking a step forward,” Havener said.

“The way I look at this, we’ve got to do something to make sure people are interested in coming here.”

Some of the audience members disagreed about this concept.