by CHRIS ROGERS
The Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) will sell prime land in downtown Winona to prospective developers and local governments, just not anytime soon. As the five-year-long Winona bridge project comes to a close, land that Mn/DOT bought and seized to provide space for construction staging is no longer needed and will be sold. However, Mn/DOT officials said the sale of that land is still roughly a year away.
Good signs, but no final word on jail site
Mn/DOT has yet to finalize maps of exactly what land will be up for sale, but preliminary reports indicate the property where Winona County leaders hope to site a new county jail will likely be available. That is encouraging news for county officials, who have been counting on that site despite earlier word from Mn/DOT that it might not be available.
The county’s current plans for the $22-million jail-construction project depend on acquiring adjacent land from Mn/DOT — the former home of the Walz auto dealership, just west of the current jail. Last year, county staff reported that Mn/DOT indicated part of the property might not be sold, but rather retained by Mn/DOT to provide space for any future bridge repair or replacement projects.
Now, preliminary maps produced by Mn/DOT this summer suggest the space the county needs will be available. However, county leaders will not know for sure until Mn/DOT finalizes those maps. Winona County Administrator Ken Fritz explained the preliminary maps and all the indications he has gotten from Mn/DOT were encouraging. Still, he said, “Unless you get it in writing, I’m always cautious. I think we won’t know for sure until they give us a formal document.”
Former Mn/DOT District Six Right-of-Way Engineer Mark Trogstad-Isaacson told the Post late last year that final maps would likely be finished this spring. Since then, Rhonda Prestegard has replaced Trogstad-Isaacson as district right-of-way engineer. Prestegard declined an interview request, but Mn/DOT spokesperson Cindy Morgan relayed, “The general consensus I got is that it could take a year for that whole process to work out.”
Morgan explained there is a lengthy procedure for approving prospective land sales, including review by the Minnesota Office of Management and Budget.
State law requires Mn/DOT to sell excess right-of-way within one year of the end of a construction project.
Winona eyes block, possible partnership with Fastenal
Immediately west of the proposed jail site and north of the current Winona Family YMCA building, almost an entire city block will likely be available for sale. Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi said the city is interested in purchasing the property to provide parking, possibly as part of a public-private partnership with Fastenal, which is seeking parking spaces for its proposed 400-600-employee office building a couple blocks away.
“I think it’s worth exploring,” Mayor Mark Peterson said of the idea.
It is unclear what the terms of a partnership between the city and Fastenal would be. Asked if such a parking lot would be open to public parking, Sarvi said, “I don’t know. It’s way early days before we decide what’s going to happen there.”
Sarvi described parking as a short-term use for the property, saying that in the long term it would likely be redeveloped. “It sure seems to me that property that valuable would be better utilized in the development world. But we’ve got to see how it all plays out. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen with the Y and how that all plays into it.” Fastenal has agreed to purchase the current YMCA building when the Y organization moves to its new facility next year. Fastenal representatives said the company plans to demolish the current Y building and use the property for parking for the riverfront office. “Do you need to have parking there and parking on the other site?” Sarvi wondered aloud. “We’ll see.”
“It’s nearly a city block that’s vacant. It doesn’t exist in our downtown,” Sarvi added of the bridge property the city is interested in purchasing. “The last time we had that opportunity, you see what’s being built there right now.” Sarvi was referring to Fastenal founder Bob Kierlin’s Main Square Community, where upscale apartments and commercial space are currently being built.
Some of the properties the city wants to buy were seized by Mn/DOT through eminent domain. Because of that, the former owners have the option to buy back their land. If they decline, Mn/DOT officials have said that the city of Winona and Winona County would get a chance to purchase excess right-of-way at fair market value before the properties are put up for sale to the general public. Sales to the general public are typically conducted through sealed bids.
Under-the-bridge park takes shape
Contractors have been putting the finishing touches on the interstate bridges this summer, including reopening the dike bike path along the Mississippi River and adding landscaping and other niceties to the park-like area beneath and beside the bridges. Winonans have been strolling the new route that connects Levee Park to the bridge and bicycling, rollerskating, skateboarding, and even practicing yoga beneath the new bridge.
“It’s quite an attractive place,” City Council member Paul Schollmeier said of the area beneath and beside the new bridge. “I hope we can think of ways to bring people down there, and I think a name might help.”
Peterson, too, said that the city should look for ways to attract people and events to the new public space. “It’s becoming more and more apparent that that’s an extension of Levee Park and the riverfront,” he stated.
Last year, the city added a park maintenance position to help care for Levee Park, the under-the-bridge area, and downtown in general.
Sarvi lamented the fact that parking is no longer allowed under the bridges. Mn/DOT officials told city leaders that U.S. Department of Homeland Security rules prohibit parking under bridges as a safeguard against terrorist attacks. “The alternative is just to try to use that place as best we can,” Sarvi said, adding, “I think we could find some ways to do some programming under there.”