Faribault’s City Council kicked off its first in-person work session in months with a visit to the city’s newest multi-family housing development followed by a discussion on housing downtown.
Undeterred by the COVID-19 pandemic, construction crews finished up work on the Hillside Apartments earlier this month. The three-story, 44-unit complex isn’t considered upscale, but it’s on the pricier end of the city’s rental market. For the tour, property manager Bryan Collins of INH Properties was joined by the project developer, Mac Hamilton, the company’s president and CEO.
With a central location and abundance of amenities Hillside Apartments bears strong similarities to a project Hamilton completed in Owatonna last year. Known as 111 Vine, the 54-unit, five-story apartment complex now sits in the heart of the city’s downtown district.
Hamilton also completed the South Pointe Apartments, a 37-unit complex which sits on Owatonna’s south end, near the Highway 14 and Cedar Avenue exit. The success of South Pointe, which sold out even before it opened, encouraged Hamilton to embark on the Faribault project.
As with the Owatonna projects, Hamilton maintained he “spared no expense” on Hillside Apartments. That pleased council members, who got a full tour of the complex’s residential, storage and recreational spaces. Councilors saw several apartment layouts, which vary widely in the facility. On the smaller end, simple studio apartments rent for $840 per month, while a spacious two-bedroom apartment can cost as much as $1,315.
While the project wasn’t eligible for affordable housing grant dollars, the city of Faribault established a Tax Increment Financing district to facilitate its development. In addition, the development is on formerly city-owned property that was sold to the developer.
Providing more housing options in the downtown district is the cornerstone of the city’s Downtown Master Plan. Approved by the Council last December, the plan is focuses on replacing industrial/retail facilities with housing and amenities. In the city’s vision, that would serve the dual purpose of addressing the city’s housing shortage while helping the district remain vibrant. Along Central Avenue, the city estimates that one in five storefronts are either vacant or have been “converted to unsupportive use.”
In order to accommodate the increased housing, the vision includes improving walkability, adding bicycle routes, and greening up downtown with extra parks and green spaces. The city hopes to utilize the Straight River to bring amenities to downtown. Still, parking has been a challenge for city officials over the years. The city’s ad-hoc Parking Commission concluded far more parking is needed to address shortages at peak times, but attempts to deal with the issue have been fraught with controversy.
How to tweak
After returning to City Hall, the council held a marathon work session lasting more than two hours. One of the key topics discussed at the work session was just how the city might be able to modify its ordinance to help developers interested in downtown housing.
That discussion wasn’t triggered by Hamilton’s project, but by local Developer Todd Nelson’s recently approved proposal to convert the upper two floors of the former Masonic Lodge into apartments. Councilors insisted that Nelson reduce the number of apartments in the complex from nine to eight, so as to enable additional amenities, including a dedicated laundry room and onsite trash pickup.
Even that eight-unit complex required the city to issue a variance, as the site would normally be allowed to have just five apartments under a city ordinance strictly limiting the number of residential units in downtown buildings. That formula was implemented in response to concerns about downtown parking, at the recommendation of a design consultant hired by the city. Councilors coupled that with a provision requiring parking units to accompany new residential units.
City Administrator Tim Murray told the council that the latter provision was repealed to encourage downtown building owners to add apartments to their upper floors, boosting cash flow — but that the formula has remained.
Councilors previously expressed interest in loosening or modifying the formula. However, some expressed initial hesitation to revisit the ordinance at Tuesday’s meeting, arguing the case of the former Masonic Lodge was a unique circumstance.
“The way (the current ordinance) is put together, I think it’s sufficient for what we’re trying to achieve,” said Councilor Jonathan Wood. “At 230 Central Ave., Todd Nelson had a unique opportunity with those hall ceilings.”
Murray urged the council to make modifications if it was at all interested in doing so. Murray said that just because the council didn’t face a pressing need to change the ordinance doesn’t make it the wrong time to consider tweaks.
“I would say the time to change the rules is when you don’t have applications in front of you,” he said.
Although not willing to ditch the reasoning for the ordinance, the council expressed a belief that the ordinance could be drastically simplified, while still ensuring that downtown housing remains high quality and parking issues stay under control.
“I’m all for something simpler for our building owners and developers,” said Mayor Kevin Voracek. “It would be great for them to be able to put down tape measures and say, ‘this is what I can put here,’ without having to do math.”
The current formula bases maximum unit count on parcel size and number of floors, or on floor space, whichever is more restrictive. Nelson’s project fared poorly under the first formula, as 18-foot cathedral ceilings enabled the construction of lofts but weren’t counted as full floors.
To simplify the code, several councilors suggested dropping the first requirement and basing it strictly on square foot. Councilors Wood and Elizabeth Cap also suggested reducing the square foot required for each unit, enabling the creation of smaller units.
For Tom and Janet Woody, seeing their neighbor’s dog, Wriggly, is the highlight of their day during the coronavirus pandemic.
At a time when their senior living facility in Faribault is on lockdown, the Woodys and other seniors have dealt with a fair share of disappointments and stressors the past few months. It’s the little things for them and others in similar conditions, that boost their mood.
“That little dog is really a blessing,” said Janet. “He’s so tickled to see you, and I keep treats for him. He has a lot of personality. He has a lot of places he goes to. That’s a bright spot in the day, when they come by.”
According to a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, older adults are actually less likely than adults 18 to 64 to experience mental health issues as a result of worry and stress related to the coronavirus pandemic. But loneliness and bereavement, which may have existed prior to the pandemic, do impact the older populations significantly. In 2018, nearly 14% of older adults reported frequent feelings of depression and nearly 23% said they felt worried, nervous or anxious often.
Janet and Tom have been together over 70 years, and while they enjoy each others’ company, they haven’t been able to see their daughter in person, even if she brings them groceries. Their son, who lives in Arizona, drove to Faribault to surprise them but was denied access to the building.
“That was really upsetting to have our son come up here from Arizona and not see us,” said Janet. “It had been over a year since we’d seen him.”
Activities are also limited due to social distancing guidelines. Janet said they can go outside on the patio, but they need to stay 6 feet apart from one another. Inside, she said there isn’t a communal space where residents can gather.
Tom said a service nurse checks on them, and they feel well cared for at Faribault Senior Living. Their neighbors are kind, and he and Janet pass the time watching movies. But they will be glad when the lockdown is lifted.
At Milestone Senior Living, Life Enrichment Coordinator Anne Pleskonko said one of the highlights during the lockdown is for residents to watch the construction of a new park across the street. Pleskonko said she even thanked the construction workers for their “program” with donuts one day and explained they had an audience of about 19 watching them every day.
“We appreciate anything anyone does,” said Pleskonko. “I know every nursing home and assisted living place would be really appreciative of anyone reaching out, sharing a piece of music or a trip they took.”
Mikayla Bohner, a recently Bethlehem Academy graduate, often visited residents as part of her school’s service learning class. But after the facility shut down March 12 to keep residents and community members safe during the early part of the coronavirus pandemic, she wanted to find a way to touch residents’ hearts with music.
Pleskonko sent Bohner a list of songs the residents enjoyed. In no time at all, Bohner reached out to Pleskonko to announce she was nearly finished with a video featuring her playing the songs.
“When she sent it, I was just so impressed and really appreciative that she would take the time, and share it both in memory care and the apartments,” said Pleskonko. “… [The residents] have been just in awe that this young gal would want to do that.”
Bohner’s video is a half-hour compilation of selections she performed on the violin and clarinet. Her brother, Joshua, is featured in a few of the songs playing trombone. For some of the numbers, Bohner even included lyrics on the screen so residents could sing along.
Pleskonko said seniors were so appreciative of Bohner’s video that some of them wrote individual thank-you cards. At a time when entertainment is hard to come by, she welcomes others to write letters, send cards or pictures to the residents or call them on the phone.
“This has been a real challenge for all of us, and at the same time a blessing to see all the good that comes out,” said Pleskonko.
While the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Rice County has jumped precipitously, nearly 35 percent of the recent increase is due to a spike in cases at Faribault’s prison.
As of Thursday, 733 Rice County residents had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Also Thursday, the death of a fourth county resident, an individual in their 50s, was attributed to the virus.
Rice County has the sixth highest incidence rate of the coronavirus in the state and the second highest in southern Minnesota, with 896 per 100,000 residents. In southern Minnesota, only Mower County has a higher incidence rate, with 1,457 per 100,000 residents.
Deb Purfeerst, Rice County’s public health director, said a large number of Mower County cases are workers in its factories and meat-packing plants.
“We have been very fortunate in Rice County,” she told commissioners during the board’s Tuesday meeting. “We have not had any outbreaks in Rice County factories. They’ve doing a very good job with screening.”
Early this month, the state Department of Corrections announced its first case of COVID-19 at Minnesota Correctional Facility-Faribault. As of Thursday, 158 MCF-Faribault inmates has tested positive. That’s out of 1,740 tests. The facility is the state’s largest and typically houses around 2,000 minimum- and maximum-security prisoners. All 158 remain in isolation.
Three staff members have tested positive, the MDH reported. Two have recovered/returned to work.
The numbers continue to show more men in Rice County have COVID-19 than women. On Tuesday morning, Purfeerst reported 436 men and 258 women had been confirmed to have the virus. The southern portion of the county has a far greater number: 609 had Faribault addresses, 74 had Northfield addresses.
While about 22% percent were imprisoned, 67.5% live in a private residence. Only 1% lived in a group home or were in a long-term care facility.
The numbers are also skewed when it comes to race.
According to 2010 U.S. Census figures, 86% of Rice County residents were white, 6% were black. In Faribault, 77% were white, 14% were black. About 35% of those with confirmed cases of COVD-19 are black, Purfeerst said, 23% are white.
While those numbers are concerning, Purfeerst and Public Health Department staff meet regularly with leaders of the local Somali community to help educate them on the virus, how it’s spread and how to protect themselves and others. They’ve also created a video in Somali to help spread the message further.
The virus is an issue the sheriff’s office is dealing with as well. According to Rice County’s Troy Dunn, his office is doing more testing of inmates coming in to the county jail. They’re currently at about 50% occupancy, but expect the population to rise again now that the courts are reopening. That will make distancing between prisoners increasingly difficult.
Once of the biggest issues, he said Tuesday, is if a prisoner they’re transporting shows COVID-19 symptoms. That requires the vehicle be professionally cleaned and sanitized, taking it out of service for one to three days. Dunn also expressed concern that the Department of Health is not releasing the addresses of anyone with a confirmed case to law enforcement as it had initially announced.
“You just have to assume everyone has it,” said Purfeerst. “It does burn through a lot of (personal protective equipment).