Nuns, neighborhood, developer struggle to solve pasture puzzle

·5 min read

Oct. 2—MANKATO — An eight-acre piece of pastureland adjacent to a century-old neighborhood in Mankato won't become home to a large apartment building targeted at lower-income tenants.

That appears to be the only thing that's been decided six months after the School Sisters of Notre Dame publicly began community discussions about the looming sale of their pasture — and the rest of the Our Lady of Good Counsel campus.

The Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership, which specializes in creation of affordable rental homes for lower-income Minnesotans, is still interested in development of the pasture that runs along the east side of Tourtellotte Park and the adjacent residential area. The SWMHP originally offered concepts that included as many as 83 apartments and townhouses, which sparked significant backlash in the neighborhood of single-family homes.

"They do have kind of a potential Plan B," said Mike Spellacy, a resident of North Second Street. "It consisted of building homes on 12 to 14 lots along Fourth Street."

About 15 residents met with SWMHP representatives at a pair of recent meetings conducted by facilitator Ronda Redmond, a St. Peter resident who grew up in the Tourtellotte Park neighborhood.

While the neighborhood's preference is no development, Spellacy said the new concepts received a relatively benign response because they better fit with the current nature of the neighborhood than the original idea of a three-story apartment building and rows of townhouses. SWMHP's smaller-scale alternative also includes possibly relocating the large community gardens, currently hosted on the hilltop Good Counsel campus, down to the pasture.

"We asked about financing, rentals vs. owner-occupied, size and scope of the homes, whether there would be alleys," Spellacy said. "There wasn't a lot of detail."

There also wasn't the anger and shouting during the two recent meetings that reportedly dominated a neighborhood meeting hosted by the SWMHP last summer.

"The people who did attend the two sessions were bringing up valid concerns and making connections with their neighbors and maybe coming up with ideas that nobody's thought of before," Redmond said.

Spellacy, who once represented Mankato's north side on the City Council, hopes the current council will listen to some of those ideas at an upcoming work session requested by current Ward 2 Council member Dennis Dieken.

Under city policy, developers of residential subdivisions are required to set aside land or make a financial contribution for the creation of future parks for the people who will be living in the area. Spellacy wonders if the council would be willing to let one of those developers purchase the Good Counsel pasture as their parkland contribution, allowing it to remain as green space.

Another idea, he said, would be for the city to provide a portion of the land in the Rasmussen Woods nature area to be used for the development of affordable housing apartments — then replacing that land with a new municipal nature park on the Good Counsel pasture parcel.

"That was our hope, that we could make our suggestions and see whether there's any stomach for it," Spellacy said.

Dieken said he's open to some brainstorming at the council work session, the date of which has not yet been set. But his primary motivation for requesting a discussion is to pin down the parameters of what sort of development will be allowed to occur on the pasture parcel.

"Mostly it would be establishment of what the property could be used for if it's residential development," Dieken said.

SWMHP has said it was initially misinformed about the zoning of the property by city staff, who later clarified that the organization's higher-density concepts such as the apartment building would be prohibited under the area's R-2 zoning. Dieken hopes the work session will spell out specifically the number and types of homes that would be allowed. And he wants to know if the council supports extending the city's rental density ordinance, which is in place in the existing Tourtellotte Park neighborhood, to the pasture parcel. If the ordinance was extended, the vast majority of any new homes constructed there would need to be owner-occupied.

"We'd like to have it very clear on what the land could be used for," he said, adding that it's only fair for the developer to know the rules that will be applied before investing more time and money into a proposed project.

The future use of the land is further complicated by the motivations of the seller.

The School Sisters have two primary goals in divesting themselves of the property they've owned in Mankato for more than 100 years. The sale of the property, which has been listed on a real estate site for $10.6 million, aims to generate revenue for the aging congregation of nuns and relieve them of the burdens of property management. But the nuns also want the property's next use to be consistent with their mission and values, which is why they gave the SWMHP the opportunity to develop a plan to provide housing for people who would otherwise struggle to afford a quality home.

Although the School Sisters didn't send any representatives to the recent meetings, Redmond fully expects them to continue to seek a righteous future for the pasture land.

"They've shepherded that land for a century," she said. "It's their right to make their last act of service on Good Counsel Hill whatever it is they want it to be."

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