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The Willmar City Council last month approved a Planning Commission initiative to expand the 14-block central business district by rezoning eight adjacent blocks along the downtown’s east, south and west boundaries from limited business/general business to central business district. One of those areas was two half-blocks on the west side of First Street between Litchfield Avenue, seen Monday from south of the downtown Willmar sign/Highway 12 sign, and Trott Avenue Southwest. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

Willmar, Minn., officials hope expanded central business district brings development benefits

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WILLMAR — Downtown promoters and supporters hope recent City Council action to expand the boundaries of the central business district will lead to new commercial and residential development there.

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The council last month approved a Planning Commission initiative to expand the 14-block central business district by rezoning eight adjacent blocks along the downtown’s east, south and west boundaries from limited business/general business to central business district.

The initiative is a goal of the downtown improvement plan approved by the council earlier this year. The plan says rezoning adjacent blocks and expanding the district can bring benefits to certain types of businesses by providing, for instance, more urban parking requirements and property layout recommendations.

The plan lists the city as the champion to initiate the expansion and the council is the only entity with the legal authority to expand the district.

The Planning Commission and city staff had spent several months discussing the expansion. Property owners within 350 feet of the rezoned area, which included a portion of downtown, were notified. The council approved the rezoning Nov. 19.

Bruce Peterson, planning and development services director, said the only feedback he received was appreciation from the Willmar Design Center because the expansion broadens the geographical area in which the center can do its work.

The center, a local nonprofit focusing on downtown revitalization, was one of the driving forces behind the rezoning, he said.

“The regulatory plate has been set. If people want to come in and start doing some higher-density development near the downtown that exists today, we can accommodate that in that expanded area,’’ he said.

“We want to try to have a higher-intensity development standard, allow greater density at the central business core to increase population and business density and to make the area function as a larger, tighter urban center,’’ he said.

Peterson guessed about 12 single-family homes are located in the expanded area. He said the expansion does not affect any property owner until their property is redeveloped and the tax will continue to be based on the use.

“If they have a single-family home, it will be taxed as a single-family home. If some of the property redevelops as commercial use, it will be taxed as commercial use. It does not compel anyone to do anything,’’ Peterson said.

“But it provides the means for greater density of development. If a multi-family housing developer wants to come in and buy up a block, they could do so and develop higher-density housing that would both support and be supported by the central business district,’’ he said.

The expansion adds the following areas:

- Two blocks between Litchfield Avenue and Trott Avenue Southwest and between Sixth Street and Seventh Street Southwest.

- Four blocks between First Street South and Fifth Street Southwest and between Trott Avenue and Minnesota Avenue Southwest.

- Two half-blocks on the west side of First Street between Litchfield Avenue and Trott Avenue Southwest.

- One block between First Street and Second Street Southwest and between Pacific Avenue and Litchfield Avenue Southwest.

Peterson does not foresee eastward expansion beyond First Street.

“I think First Street serves as a very formidable physical boundary to the (central business district) and to expand the (district) across First Street is inviting pedestrian movements and vehicle movements that really aren’t consistent with the best interest of the community as far as going forward,’’ he said.

The new boundary lines are based on feedback from residents at a community meeting a year ago at Bethel Lutheran Church. People were asked to draw on a map what their perception was of the central business district. Peterson said most people’s concept included the larger area.

“That served as the basis of the Planning Commission’s discussion,’’ he said.

“When people think of a downtown, they’re thinking of a mix of commercial businesses, professional office businesses, professional services, health care and government. It runs the gamut,’’ he said.

“That’s where you really receive the benefits of that type of development because you’ve got a great mixture of uses. You’ve got a lot of different activities and all the activities kind of feed off each other,’’ he said.

“It strengthens the core of the central business district. That’s where our downtown has weakened over the years. We’ve lost that intensity, lost that real urban feel, the excitement, the intensity, that those types of uses generate,’’ he said.

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David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150
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