The Northfield City Council on Feb. 16 narrowly issued a conditional use permit for a 440-bed St. Olaf College housing project but rejected the addition of parking.

The pending development includes a 300-bed residential hall designed as four separate houses with interconnected hallways and lounges. Another 140 beds would be added in 14 townhouses along St. Olaf Avenue near the college’s west entrance. All units are intended for college juniors and seniors.

The council in December unanimously approved the rezoning of nine parcels west of Lincoln Street North and on the north side of campus to make way for the project. The Northfield Planning Commission recommended the council approve the project’s conditional use permit and rezone the nine parcels in November, but rejected the addition of 28 parking stalls north of the proposed development, an increase the college says is needed for overflow student and event parking. Council action means the college can replace 161 existing stalls for now.

The council’s 4-3 vote came after St. Olaf Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Jan Hanson said students, because of a lack of existing parking space, sometimes park in staff stalls at night before moving their vehicles to city parking lots the following morning. Voting against the motion were Mayor Rhonda Pownell and Councilors Brad Ness and George Zuccolotto,

Despite remarking that removing 28 of the parking spaces would not be an “ideal situation,” Hanson said the project would still take place. Those parking spaces could be developed in other locations on campus grounds without council approval.

Councilor Suzie Nakasian said her vote was with a focus on “sustainable transit solutions,” a plan consistent with the city’s goal to develop infrastructure to allow for less reliance on vehicular traffic.

Fellow Councilor Jessica Peterson White said she also supported removing of the parking spaces from the plan, noting that option aligned with the recommendations of the Planning Commission last year. Councilor Clarice Grenier Grabau asked whether the college could increase its shuttle service and help students find new travel options.

St. Olaf Vice President for Student Life Hassel Morrison worried about the possible impact transportation challenges would pose for students who bring cars to school or drive off-campus for employment, volunteer opportunities, or paid or unpaid internship work. He also expressed concern that having the parking be further away from residence halls would pose challenges for students with preexisting physical conditions.

Ness cited a traffic study that found the additional parking wouldn’t create much of a traffic change on Lincoln Street and St. Olaf Avenue. He predicted that not allowing the spaces would ensure that cars park to the east of Lincoln.

Mayor Rhonda Pownell said the 28 spaces were important for students and visitors for classes and events, especially with the city’s relative lack of transit options.

The townhouses would replace aging residences, ranging from 78 to more than 110 years old, that the college has acquired over the years. The majority of the school’s residence halls were built between 1956-63. However, the college has reportedly faced a shortage of more than 400 on-campus beds since the 1990s as enrollment has outpaced residential development. To combat the shortage, St. Olaf has sometimes had up to three students living in the same room and allowed several hundred to live off campus. According to the college, the project is also needed for St. Olaf to compete in recruiting. The more than $60 million development is expected to come on the land west of Lincoln Avenue that used to hold the school’s Honor Houses and the President’s House.

As part of the project, sidewalks on the north and south sides of St. Olaf Avenue adjacent to the project area will be widened to 9 feet. Two crosswalks will be marked to connect the townhomes and residence halls across St. Olaf Avenue.

Plans call for occupancy by fall 2022.

Reach Associate Editor Sam Wilmes at 507-645-1115. © Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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