WILLMAR — The value of four Willmar-owned lots in downtown was debated Wednesday night by members of the Willmar Planning Commission. The question was whether the lots located on Block 25, currently being used as a public parking lot, were more valuable to the city as a parking lot or as the future home of a new apartment building.

At the end of the debate, which raised several questions and differences of opinion on the issue, the commission approved the sale to Lumber One Development Company LLC for $1 a parcel. It will now go to the Willmar City Council for final approval.

Lumber One plans to construct a market-rate apartment complex with around 57 units on the site, using the entirety of Block 25, located between Second and Third Street Streets Southwest, bordered by U.S. Highway 12 and Benson Avenue.

Ted Schmid, the chief operating officer for the development company, said there are already purchase agreements with the owners of the other half of the block, which includes the old site of Nelsen's Laundry.

"The developer is spending funds while doing its due diligence," said David Ramstad, Willmar Planning and Development Director. "They need to know that the city supports this transaction."

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The parcels have an assessed value of $91,700, but as city-owned land, it does not contribute property tax revenue. Ramstad said the land, which has known environmental concerns, has generated little development interest over the years.

The nearly free sale price is one of the Willmar Renaissance Zone incentives approved by the city to help drive development in downtown and along the Highway 12 commercial corridor.

Lumber One will most likely also be applying for tax increment financing as part of its incentive package, to help cover the cost of mitigating the environmental issues.

The Willmar Renaissance Zone covers all of downtown along with several sections of residential and commercial areas along U.S. Highway 12 and First Street South. Map provided by the city of Willmar
The Willmar Renaissance Zone covers all of downtown along with several sections of residential and commercial areas along U.S. Highway 12 and First Street South. Map provided by the city of Willmar

While the sale was approved by the commission, many of the commissioners had issue with the proposed sale and how it was brought to the commission.

Commissioner Jeff Kimpling, though he voted yes, said he felt the commission was being forced into a corner without having all the information. He said developers usually have an idea what a project is going to look like and what will be needed when they start purchasing land, and he would like to have those facts in front of the commission before being asked to make a difficult decision.

"Please do something different," Kimpling said. "We need to make informed decisions."

Commissioner Cletus Frank was the lone dissenting voice in the 5 to 1 vote. Frank has concerns about taking a parking lot out of commission in downtown.

Frank said the land isn't undeveloped or marginal. Instead it has value as a public parking lot. If the apartment project goes forward, the lot in question, with its 48 spots, would be removed.

"The need exists historically and currently for parking in the downtown development district," Frank said.

There were also questions raised about how much parking the apartment building would be required to have. Most multi-family housing projects need to have at least two parking spaces for each unit, though the downtown business district is exempt from those requirements.

Schmid said he envisions a complex for those wanting to live within walking distance of amenities and work, or smaller households that perhaps have only one vehicle.

He added that if the project is required to have two parking slots per unit, it would have a negative impact on the project, possibly requiring fewer units. This could mean the project would no longer be viable.

"This is not going to be a car-only type of project. It is going to be part of the downtown community," Schmid said.

Parking requirements for new developments are decided through the process of obtaining a conditional use permit, a process the new apartment complex will go through. Approving the land sale is only the first step and the Planning Commission can add parking requirements to the permit. It, as well as the City Council, can also decide not to approve the project in the end.

"This is just the beginning" of the process, said Willmar City Planner Sarah Swedburg.

Others attending the meeting did not agree with Frank's position that the land was more valuable as a parking lot.

Aaron Backman, executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, said the lots are located at an entrance into downtown and should provide more than just parking.

"This is an opportunity to have a significant development. I am excited they are willing to consider this investment that encourages people to live and work downtown," Backman said.

Ramstad agreed that the downtown parking concerns were valid and that there was a chance the city could replace some of the parking being lost.

The commission and staff have also been taking a look at the parking requirements throughout the city, to see if there are different and better ways to make sure there is enough parking while allowing new development.

"Everybody in the city realizes downtown parking is a need and we need to continue to address it and we need to implement some changes," Swedburg said.