The developer of a proposed 102-unit apartment complex in downtown Mound could face an uphill battle now that the city’s advisory commission has withheld its support in granting a conditional use permit for the site.

Mound planning commissioners denied 8-2 on July 21 a recommendation that city council approve the CUP, with planning commission chair David Pelka saying that forfeiture of certain development standards, particularly those that concern parking, could have “unforeseen consequences” for future development within the city’s other mixed use districts. 

Schafer Richardson, current owner of the Commerce Place shopping center, had applied with the city for a conditional use permit that would in part allow the developer to side-step parking requirements that mandate a one-to-one ratio of covered parking stalls to housing units. Schafer’s 102-unit complex includes just 84 covered parking stalls; plans show an additional 124 stalls in surface parking plus 36 stalls in the shared Wells Fargo lot.

Trevor Martinez, development manager for Schafer Richardson, had said that following the one-to-one guideline would necessitate a reduction in the total number of units, which he said is financially infeasible for this project. That reasoning didn’t garner much favor among comissioners, many of whom indicated they view the site as a potential focal point for the city and one that has been long-awaited.

“I struggle with why, in the very first redevelopment to happen in Mound in probably 10 years, why we’d be granting an exception to something like that off the bat,” said Pelka, who urged commissioners to question whether they weren’t about to approve the project just because it came before them, adding later that “We get one chance to redevelop that space as a focal point of Mound. There are a lot of things that are interesting about this building and this plan, however, I think in general we just feel we can do a little bit better.”

In its 12-year ownership of Commerce Place, Schafer has cycled through 17 designs for its redevelopment, but the current high density housing proposal is the first of those plans to reach commissioners. The site was recommended during the commission’s July 7 hearing for a rezoning to a Planned Unit Development (PUD), which would, if approved by city council later this summer, give Schafer increased flexibility in project plans. A CUP is tied to that rezoning as it would define the code exceptions for the PUD site, specific to the project at hand.

But commissioner Drew Heal likened approval of the conditional use permit to opening “Pandora’s box” vis-à-vis future development, saying, too, that “I’m not against development of the downtown Commerce area—I think it’s important, but I do think that we have to do some kind of mixed use.”

Between the current proposal for Commerce Place and the pending land purchase agreement between the city and Lifestyle Communities for a co-op in the Harbor District, residents present at the July 21 session and at the earlier hearing, as well as some commissioners, made known that they felt “mixed use” in the city was fast bending toward a single-track “high density residential” that a CUP would do nothing but further accelerate.

Commissioners Jon Ciatti and Sue Pilling were in the minority, voing July 21 in favor of recommending council approval of the CUP. Ciatti pointed to the city’s inability to attract commercial tenants, both at Commerce and elsewhere, and had previously commented that it would be a gamble to forgo redevelopment now in hand for a future proposal tha may or may not materialize. Pilling, both at the July 7 hearing and the July 21 special session, made known her position that more people living in Mound could bring more business to the city’s existing retail.

Commerce Place shopping center, now home to Anytime Fitness, Jade Palace restaurant and Southwest Eye Care, has a 78 percent vacancy, while across the street at Mound Marketplace, owned by California-based LS Capital and anchored by Jubilee, there remains one vacancy after years of shoring up development there. The city has long struggled to fill a nearly abandoned building farther south on Commerce Boulevard and has also seen vacancies farther east, in the Stonegate Plaza area.

“The reality is this space will have to get redeveloped; it’s probably not going to survive as retail,” said Pelka of the Commerce Place site.

The planning commission’s denial of the recommendation for the CUP comes after a heavy outpouring of dissatisfaction by Mound residents during the July 7 hearing. Commissioners opted to hear from residents again July 21 before voting on the CUP recommendation. Again they received feedback that was averse to the project before them.

Additionally, since the July 4 weekend, more than 1,300 people have signed an online petition against the proposed development. Antagonism to the project ranges from a general distaste for building multi-family housing in what has historically been a main commercial district, to a skepticism that the project was designed with only the developer’s financial interests in mind.

Mound city council will hold its own public hearing on the development at its Aug. 12 session, to be held at 7 p.m. at the Westonka Performing Arts Center.

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