City pushes North Kelsey review
MONROE - Crunch time is approaching for the Planning Commission to make a recommendation on amending the North Kelsey plan.
The commission has been asked to decide how best to guide future development there — let it continue to develop into big-box stores and other car-centric retail businesses, or try to salvage as much of the pedestrian-oriented North Kelsey vision as possible.
The City Council has final say.
The city argued this year that the walkable, community-oriented vision for North Kelsey, created in the early 2000s, doesn’t fit with a recently planned Walmart and a Lowe’s approved for the site years ago.
As of a joint City Council-Planning Commission meeting in mid-February, the city is planning on amending the North Kelsey plan, which originally called for human-scale development to encourage pedestrian activities as well as the allotment of a good-sized parcel for a “village green” and other civic amenities.
The City Council must weigh the public process that created the North Kelsey plan against the economic and political realities that have more or less decimated that plan.
The North Kelsey vision isn’t panning out, the city argues and wants to amend the plan to match what’s happening on the ground, most notably by moving the requirements for mixed-use development and setting aside park-like, community gathering space into the Downtown Master Plan instead, where city planners say it fits better.
“(North Kelsey) has not developed and will not develop anywhere close to its original vision,” planning and permitting manager Paul Popelka said last week. “Changes in the market, changes in the economy, changes in what was really appropriate and doable in Monroe in the last 10 to 12 years” prompted the need to amend the plan, Popelka said.
The city can retain the design guidelines for North Kelsey, “but let it develop as it is being developed,” including more big-box stores, Popelka said.
Any requirements for community gathering space will be moved to the downtown plan, the City Council decided a few weeks ago, leaving it up to the Planning Commission to sort out the details.
The problem is the requirements are written right into the city’s comprehensive plan — which, Popelka said, is no place for a detailed, regulatory document like the North Kelsey plan. The comprehensive plan is supposed to be a broad policy document that can only be amended once a year, through a public process.
The regulatory language regarding pedestrian access likely will not find its way back into the North Kelsey plan once amended.
“North Kelsey is really dependent on the automobile,” Popelka said. “You don’t walk around North Kelsey from Walmart to Lowe’s,” he said, adding that similarly, people usually do walk downtown and wouldn’t normally drive from the book store to the antique store.
Community members are showing signs of unrest with the city’s reluctancy to get public input. Friends of North Kelsey just announced their plans to appeal the Walmart ruling to the state Court of Appeals, and last week Jeff Rasmussen reminded the City Council that it needs to listen to residents better.
“Perception becomes reality,” Rasmussen said. And people perceive that their city officials aren’t listening regarding North Kelsey, Lake Tye, traffic cameras and the East Monroe rezone request, he said.
“Let’s work together, let’s make this right,” he said.
The North Kelsey plan went through a public process that took years to develop and resulted in a dynamic plan calling for mixed-use development and architectural design standards and pedestrian connections.
The city’s 180-degree turn is due in large part to the City Council’s April 2011 vote to approve a site plan for a Walmart supercenter.
Since the comprehensive plan is hard to change, the city wants to put the goals and guidelines into the city’s zoning code where they will be easier to change.
The plan is to leave the goals and general policies in the comprehensive plan, but take all the specific rules and regulations out and add them into the zoning code.
The Planning Commission is working on how best to maintain some integrity in both the North Kelsey and downtown plans. Each plan will be removed from the comprehensive plan, and a re-write of the general goals and objectives of the two plans will be inserted into the comprehensive plan before the commission’s work is done.
Several commissioners have expressed doubt they have enough time within the coming weeks to accomplish this work, along with the rest of the 2012 Planning Commission docket — including the East Monroe rezone, FirstAir Field expansion and Roosevelt Ridge annexation.
Commissioner Dave Demarest said last week he wants to see what is going to remain of the North Kelsey plan, in the comprehensive plan and the zoning code, to avoid any unintended results of the city’s impending actions.
“It’s really hard for me to accept a removal based on a substitution if I don’t see the substitution. I need to have something in front of me that I (can evaluate),” Demarest said.
He also noted that this will be difficult to do in just a few weeks.
Demarest argued that perhaps the council that placed the North Kelsey and downtown master plans into the comprehensive plan did so purposefully, so the North Kelsey vision wouldn’t become a “political football.”
The barriers to achieving the North Kelsey vision are more than just political, city staff said.
“Where is that open space? Where is it available for sale? And the plan says it has to be there and that’s the conundrum,” economic development manager Jeff Sax said.
The council cannot without a doubt say open space will be available, Sax said.
It’s not a lost cause, Demarest said. The city put a lot of weight into the idea that North Kelsey would be a unique, community-oriented development when the plan was adopted.
“The plan calls for that space. The city owns the property, they have the ability to meet this plan,” he said.
The goal of developing North Kelsey in this way was “to create a vibrant, mixed-use place that has a visible and commercial civic town center, which is similar to what we wish for downtown,” Popelka said. He also noted that he doubts North Kelsey can be developed into a mixed-use district now.
Monroe resident Diane Elliott, spokeswoman for Friends of North Kelsey, said Monroe’s downtown is only a block or two long, and the grand plans for North Kelsey, which are sorely needed in Monroe, may not fit in the downtown.
There is no spot downtown for a large village green, she added, “that is why the North Kelsey site was created.”
A public hearing on the North Kelsey and Downtown Master Plan comprehensive plan amendments is scheduled for the Monday, April 23 planning commission meeting at 7 p.m. in the City Council chambers at City Hall.
By STEPHANIE KOSONEN
Published March 21, 2012