Good Counsel redevelopment plan faces backlash

Mark Fischenich, The Free Press, Mankato, Minn.
·8 min read

May 2—MANKATO — The first proposal for redevelopment of a prime piece of the Good Counsel property — dozens of apartments and townhouses aimed at lower-middle-class renters — is getting anything but a warm reception from the Tourtellotte Park neighborhood.

"Nobody wants it," said Kate Baumann, who has gathered about 170 signatures in opposition to the proposal. "Nobody wants it at all."

The project involves a roughly 8-acre piece of land owned by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, which announced a month ago that it would be selling its entire Good Counsel campus. The portion housing Loyola Catholic School will be purchased by the K-12 Catholic school system, but the fate of the rest of the historic property is still being finalized — dozens of acres of picturesque high-value real estate in the heart of the city.

Although the sale and redevelopment of the property aims to generate revenue for the aging congregation of nuns and relieve them of the financial burdens of property management, the School Sisters said they also want the next use of the property to be consistent with the organization's mission and values.

The plan by Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership — a 29-year-old nonprofit that has focused primarily on creating affordable housing in south-central and southwestern parts of the state — was the first redevelopment proposal to come forward and involves the portion of the SSND property below Good Counsel Hill.

The tentative plan was revealed to homeowners in the Tourtellotte Park area at a meeting in the park April 20.

"It was a big hullaballoo," said Mike Spellacy, a North Second Street resident who estimated attendance at nearly 100. "... Mostly neighborhood people, mostly opposition."

A pamphlet distributed at the meeting showed a two-phase project. The first would include 12 townhomes facing the 1700 block of North Fourth Street, the final residential block before the park. The townhomes would have rear-facing garages with Ruth Street extended to the east to provide access to the garages and to a three-story apartment building with 34 apartments next to the hill.

A parking lot containing more than 60 stalls would separate the townhomes from the apartment building. Modular construction is planned for the buildings, meaning components would be created in a factory and shipped to the site for assembly.

At some future date, Phase Two would involve 26 to 37 more townhomes, according to the pamphlet. Roughly half would be north of the Phase One structures and would overlook Tourtellotte Park, and the other half would be southeast of the initial construction and would be accessed via a further extension of Ruth Street.

"It's the first phase we're most excited about because of the high-density housing," said Spellacy, who once represented the area on the Mankato City Council. "We just feel it's too high-density for an old historic neighborhood that we feel could flood the neighborhood with traffic, noise, pollution. It just doesn't seem like it fits."

The proposal caught the neighborhood by surprise, Baumann said. People expected the land would be slated for residential development but not for a large apartment building and 28 to 44 townhouses.

"Everybody in the neighborhood pictured single-family houses or something like that," she said. "It's tons of townhouses and apartments."

The SWMHP pamphlet included a suggestion that the number of housing units being proposed is not substantially different than would have been the case if the SSND meadow had been developed as single-family lots along with the rest of the neighborhood. An undated plat map on the pamphlet showed nearly 50 lots on the portion of the parcel that is proposed to hold about 24 of the townhouses and the 34 apartment units.

A planned second neighborhood meeting at the Tourtellotte Park picnic shelter was postponed because the anticipated attendance was well beyond what's allowed under COVID-19 protocols even for outdoor events.

Baumann, who has lived on North Fourth Street for 11 years, said she didn't sleep at all the night following the meeting and decided to take action, working with others to circulate a petition stating the redevelopment plan was not in the best interests of the neighborhood; warning it would lead to an increase in traffic, noise and possibly crime; and asking the SSND and the SWMHP to rethink their plans.

They've also met with city officials and are attempting to meet directly with the School Sisters.

SWMHP architect James Arentson in a written response to questions from The Free Press said residents are incorrectly assuming that the plan for the property has already been set.

"I can tell you that the concept plan provided for discussion with residents at a community meeting last week was simply that — a concept plan for discussion," Arentson said. "Some residents assumed it was done — which is not the case. Changes are possible, and are best made through more constructive communication with the neighborhood. SSND and SWMHP are very interested in resident perspectives related to change and are willing to work with residents in that goal. SSND is working to schedule a meeting with neighborhood representatives in the near future to listen and discuss their concerns."

The neighborhood's preference is for the land to be left as a natural area, for it to be incorporated into an expansion of Tourtellotte Park or — if development of some sort is necessary — limiting any housing to single-family, owner-occupied homes, according to Spellacy and Baumann.

"Our first choice as a neighborhood association is to retain the property as it is, as green space," Spellacy said, joking that the second and third choices are green space, with the fourth being parkland.

As a former council member who served a four-year term at the beginning of the century, Spellacy isn't sure about the viability of persuading the council to purchase parkland in a neighborhood that already has a large park.

And neighborhood residents know the School Sisters are selling their property, not just in Mankato but on other campuses around the country, to generate revenue to provide housing and health care for elderly nuns while also continuing their educational mission. Blue Earth County tax records appear to place the value of the land in question at nearly $300,000.

"It seems to me they're going to try to cash in as much as they can while also trying to do good, as they always have," he said of the School Sisters.

Providing affordable homes for working-class Mankatoans may well fit that ambition. The nuns have been frequent supporters of social justice causes, including anti-homelessness programs.

"I think they thought we'd like it because we'd be helping people," Baumann said of the affordable housing proposal. "They mean all the best."

Although the nuns are consistent supporters of environmental causes as well, Arentson said any possibility of creating a nature preserve would require an outside benefactor.

"We know that change is hard," he said. "Whether new homes or green space in the future, the reality is that the property can't be donated. It needs to be purchased at a fair market value for a purpose that SSND believes in."

Currently, that means a focus on creating more affordable housing.

"They want to divest of their property for purposes that support community needs long term," he wrote. "SSND is well aware that housing affordability is an important need in the Mankato area. SWMHP is assisting in that goal."

Accomplishing that is challenging with current home-construction costs, and Arentson said a variety of financing tools are under consideration. But he indicated it would be impractical to build new homes similar to those already in place in the Tourtellotte Park neighborhood, which is more than a century old, while making them affordable for lower-middle-class workers.

"It is very difficult to build new homes that are comparable in cost to existing neighborhood homes today," he said. "Affordability requires financial assistance from many sources."

Arentson emphasized that the redevelopment is a work in progress.

"It is worth considering single-family, two-family, and neighborhood-scale multi-family options in light of Mankato's housing needs and SSND's goals," he said. "The concept design provided at a recent neighborhood meeting was a start, not the end."

The residents intend to keep pushing for a plan they find more acceptable.

"What we lack in knowledge we're going to try to make up for with enthusiasm and tenacity," Spellacy said. "We know it's an uphill battle."

They also know that, barring a wealthy donor stepping up to purchase the land and preserve it as a natural area, the idyllic landscape is likely to change in some way.

For decades, much of the parcel was used as a pasture during warm months. That ended more than 10 years ago, but Spellacy recalls those days fondly: "I'd have the windows open, I'd wake up at 7 in the morning and hear the cattle mooing. I thought, 'This is pretty good.'"

Since the cows left, the land has become home to deer, wild turkeys, foxes and other wildlife.

"We got lulled into thinking this is the way it will always be because this is the way it's always been," Spellacy said. "Because it's been 100 years."