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Old Town plan suggests dramatic remake

MANKATO — In January, area residents flooded city officials with big ideas for the future of one of Mankato’s oldest business districts, and the past five months were spent distilling that into an Old Town Master Plan.

On Tuesday night, the plan was unveiled. And what was left of the big ideas? Pretty much everything.

The draft plan — written by the city’s Community Development department — calls for transforming the North Riverfront district with greenery, pedestrian improvements, fewer traffic lanes, more art and events, dramatic new connections to the Minnesota River, sidewalk cafes, better links to downtown, a walking bridge to North Mankato, and a potential extension of Madison Avenue.

At the same time, the plan emphasizes the importance of preserving the unique historic nature of the century-old stretch of shops and other businesses. And it includes both improvements that can be put in place relatively quickly and inexpensively along with major transformations that might take years or decades to complete.

“I’m pretty impressed with it,” said Tony Filipovitch after viewing the draft plan at an open house at the Eagles Club attended by more than 60 business owners and residents. “… It’s a nice combination of ideas that can be implemented immediately and steps toward building a long-term vision. And I also like the way it built the community into the process.”

That continued Tuesday night with people scribbling opinions on comment boards situated below various pieces of the plan and voting on their top four priorities.

Walking and driving

Those priority votes landed most heavily on issues related to transportation through Old Town, particularly in relation to Riverfront Drive, which carries more than 16,000 vehicles a day in that stretch.

The plan contains myriad proposals aimed at slowing traffic, along with making the district more pleasant and less dangerous for walkers. Among the potential changes are a reduction in lanes on Riverfront from four to three (with the center lane reserved for left turns), bump-outs at corners to make for shorter crossings for pedestrians, and more signal lights to create safe crossing spots.

Alleys between Second Street and Riverfront Drive would be dressed up and landscaped to promote use by pedestrians, with gateways to the alleys created at Rock and Plum streets. Suggestions include potentially burying power lines, replacing pavement with paver stones, upgrading the rear end of buildings, and adding benches, bike racks, shrubs, trees and art.

Crossing improvements, such as bump-outs, and bike lanes are urged as well for Second Street, which runs parallel to Riverfront.

Reconnecting to the river

The plan notes that the railroad corridor running between Old Town and the Minnesota River is a major obstruction. In the shorter term, the plan recommends grade-separated crossings of the train tracks, including a possible extension of Madison Avenue into the mined-out Coughlan quarry just north of Riverfront Park — which would allow traffic to reach the park and Old Town parking lots.

In the longer term, the city should explore consolidating the railroad tracks immediately behind Old Town properties to create more development potential along the river. And the plan specifically urges the city to pursue “River Reflex,” an award-winning master’s project by former University of Minnesota landscape architecture student Michael Schiebe.

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The most striking aspect of Schiebe’s plan involves removal of hundreds of feet of the flood wall and the creation of a natural riverside area dominated by trees and grass and approaching 10 acres in size. A trail, on a slope high enough to provide flood protection, would run through the green area and connect Riverfront Park to downtown near the Veterans Memorial Bridge. And Old Town would have a direct link to the river via Elm Street.

The idea would require private landowners in the area to eventually be interested in selling their property.

The plan also suggests considering riverside “promenades, plazas and boat landings” when reconstruction or modifications of the flood-control system occur, and encourages the city to study a pedestrian bridge connecting Old Town to North Mankato.

Preserving and enhancing

Old Town’s history must be preserved even as the area is revitalized, according to the plan, which notes that urban renewal downtown in the 1970s failed that test.

“The State Historic Preservation Office has estimated that Mankato lost more of its architectural heritage than any other city in Minnesota,” the draft plan states.

Along with preserving existing historic buildings, the master plan suggests strict design standards for new construction in Old Town to match the brick-and-stone nature of the area.

Simultaneously, the plan calls for cutting edge additions to Old Town such as “parklets,” a trendy urban design concept that extends the sidewalk into the street at corners. Adding murals, sculptures, artist-designed crosswalks and bike racks, and dramatic colored lighting to the Veterans Memorial Bridge is advocated. More festivals and events, cultural and commercial, are also needed, according to the plan.

Setting aside the quarry

Redevelopment of the Coughlan Companies’ quarries was originally included in the Old Town Master Plan, but the intense community interest in potential uses of the 32 acres of dramatic quarry land will require a separate plan with its own public open-house process, according to the Community Development department.

“The reuse of the quarry merits its own planning process due to the complexity of land involved and plethora of ideas that surfaced during the Old Town public engagement process,” the plan states.

After revisions are made to incorporate the public comment from Tuesday’s open house, the draft of the Old Town Master Plan will go to the city’s Planning Commission and later this summer to the City Council.

Some Planning Commission members — including Filipovitch and John Considine — were on hand Tuesday to get an early look. Considine was among the nearly 200 people who weighed in during the January meetings and was impressed how much of the community input was adopted in the draft plan.

“I see a lot of the ideas that were brought forward,” Considine said. “… The essence of those were put in the plan we see tonight.”

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