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More housing downtown: Willmar OKs multi-family residential use in Central Business District

WILLMAR — Quite a few people live in the Central Business District of downtown Willmar. However most of them probably live in apartments above commercial spaces, since for decades that has been the only style of residence allowed in that portion of town. Not so now, as the Willmar Planning Commission and City Council have approved a zoning ordinance text amendment allowing multi-family residential as a primary use for buildings in the Central Business District.

"It affords developers the flexibility to have creativity," city planner Sarah Anderson said. "To think outside the box and continue to have a vibrant city."

The Central Business District is defined as the area of downtown bounded by Trott Avenue on the south, Seventh Street Southwest on the west, U.S. Highway 12 and Pacific Avenue on the north and First Street on the east.

Developers will need to go through the conditional use permitting process before the Planning Commission will approve a new residential development. Obtaining a conditional use permit includes conducting a public hearing, a plan review by city staff and finally approval by the City Council.

"It is a very hands-on, closely-looked-at use," Anderson said.

One of the biggest issues raised when the amendment was being discussed was parking. By using the conditional use permit process, the Planning Commission will be able look at each potential development on its own merit and make sure there will be enough parking for future residents.

"That really limits where it can be," Anderson said.

While the amended zoning ordinance could mean the construction of a brand new apartment building in the center of downtown Willmar, Anderson said the commission expects more use of the amendment for buildings on the district's outer reaches. In those areas, having apartment buildings can be a good transition between the business district and single-family home zones.

"It is a good transition between uses," Anderson said.

She said the Planning Commission members do not feel that allowing residential development as a primary use in the Central Business District detracts from the area. Instead it could improve it.

"It allows more people to be closer to and have easier access to the activity downtown," Anderson said. "There is a lot of activity downtown. There are people all over."

Over the past several months, the Planning Commission has been looking at the city's zoning ordinances and recommending changes members feel will help grow Willmar. Recently, the city added dozens of allowed and conditional uses for the city's shopping center districts. Anderson said the commission wants to allow more creativity and diversity in development.

Looking forward, Anderson said the commission will be doing a complete update of the city's subdivision and zoning ordinances. The last update of the zoning ordinance was done in 1994, the subdivision ordinance has not been updated since 1964.

Both ordinance updates will be major projects. The zoning ordinance alone is over a hundred pages.

"It is 116 pages, not including another 100 pages of text amendments," Anderson said.