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Parking lot plan causes rift

A plan to rebuild the biggest city parking lot in Alexandria ran into stiff opposition Monday night.

During the Alexandria City Council's public hearing, seven downtown business owners spoke against the city's plan, saying it was too costly, "too pretty" and that it would take away too many parking spaces.

After hearing an hour's worth of mostly negative reaction, the council asked city staff to come up with a "butt ugly" or more plain parking lot plan by the next meeting to help merchants compare the costs.

"We do not want to cause hardship for any merchant in the city," noted council member Sara Carlson.

The city has been planning to improve the deteriorating lot along Fillmore Street, between 5th and 6th Avenue, for years.

Working with building owners and merchants, city staff came up with a design that would completely change the look of the parking lot with landscaping, curbing, lighting, striping, catch basins and storm sewer.

The entire parking lot would be removed and resurfaced. Overhead electric and cable lines would be buried underground and a new watermain would be installed so businesses would have their own independent lines instead of a "daisy chain" configuration running off one line.

The alley would remain a one-way but vehicles would be able to enter or exit every parking row from the alley or from Fillmore Street.

The number of parking spaces will be reduced from 154 to 127. City Planner Mike Weber pointed out that the new lot, however, will have six full-fledged handicap spaces, which the existing lot doesn't have.

The lot is rarely filled to capacity, according to Weber. He said that according to twice-a-year counts taken over the last 21 years, the lot averages being 52 percent filled and at its peak, it's 72 percent filled.

The project is estimated to cost $412,072. The city and its utility, Alexandria Light and Power, would cover about 40 percent. The assessable portion of the project is estimated at $250,000 and would be paid by the benefiting merchants.

The city plans to establish an assessment district to help pay for not only the Fillmore parking lot but also two other city lots that will eventually be improved. The district is bounded by 4th Avenue to the north, 8th Avenue to the south and the alleys east of Hawthorne Street and west of Fillmore Street.

The goal of the proposed design for the Fillmore lot, said City Engineer Tim Schoonhoven, is to make the back entrances of buildings such as Raapers and Cowing Robards more inviting. A plaza or concrete area would be placed between the parking area and the businesses that would contain plantings, lighting, and a ribbon-shaped curve to separate the back of the businesses from the alleyway. A fountain, statue or other central architectural feature would be placed in the center of the plaza area.

"The idea is to bring all the focus in on the center area," said Schoonhoven.

Most of the merchants who spoke Monday night were not sold on the plan.

Lori Koenig from Domino's Pizza at 505 Broadway noted that although the Fillmore lot doesn't affect her business very much, she would still be paying assessments on an expensive project and her parking lot could be next. She said the city should scale back its plans.

"It's a beautiful project but it looks more like a park than a parking lot," she said.

Dan Rehovsky from Alex Tronics at 608 Broadway, was worried about the loss of parking spaces. He called the plan "grossly overdone."

James Langman from Alexandria Music Store at 606 Broadway, said the city should keep things simple: Resurface the lot, repaint the yellow stripes and keep the weeds and snow out. He said if the city just did that it could probably cut the cost of the project in half.

Ed Rooney from Cowing Robards at 512 Broadway said the alley functions beautifully now for trucks delivering supplies to the back entrances of the businesses. Rooney said that the merchants want a nice looking parking lot but not at the expense of fewer spaces and added cost, especially during these tough economic times.

"We need all the parking we can possibly get," Rooney said. "We don't need pretty."

Rooney also took issue with the city's numbers that showed the Fillmore lot is rarely full. He said that the lot frequently fills up during Daily Grind events and Alexandria Area Arts Association productions.

Becky Albright from the Daily Grind at 518 Broadway, called the plan impractical for business. She was also concerned it would lead to additional maintenance costs for the city. "This plan is attractive but it does not help us," she said.

Judy Meyer from Ben Franklin at 624 Broadway, said that when she goes shopping out of town, she doesn't notice how the parking lot looks. "I don't care if there is a tree in it," she said. "It's there to park and that's it. It doesn't have to be beautiful."

Meyer added that merchants are more interested in a parking lot that is functional and well maintained.

Jason Lybeck from The Faction at 612 Broadway, said that forcing merchants to pay assessments for a parking lot project takes away money that they could have used to fix up their own stores. He said that resurfacing the lot should be sufficient.

A couple of merchants supported the plan.

Carlette Vernlund of Charlie's Bazaar at 508 Broadway noted that the trees and landscaping are only a minor expense of the overall project. She said a lot of the project - adequate handicapped parking, moving powerlines underground and improving the waterlines are things that will have to be done sooner or later.

She said that the sacrifice of a few parking spaces is worth it to improve the whole look of the downtown area. She said having a nice looking back entrance was important to businesses like hers and that it would add to the overall shopping experience.

Cal Martinson, another downtown business owner, said that the fear of the assessments may be preventing some merchants from seeing the long-term value of the project. He said the city should not let the downtown area go downhill any further. He suggested having a fundraiser to help offset the costs of the project.

Later, during the public comment portion of the meeting, Cal's father, Marv Martinson, noted that giving merchants two choices of parking lots made sense. He added that the merchants want to know what it will cost them - a process that will be determined during the assessment phase of the project.

Mayor Dan Ness noted that merchants' fear toward the project could dissipate once the city calculates the final assessments.

The council set a public hearing for July 28 to consider the parking lot options.

In other action, the council:

--Was informed that the Alexandria Fire Department (AFD) and the Alexandria Police Department (APD) each received $5,000 donations from the Josephine S. Swart estate. She passed away at age 99 and was a long-time teacher in the Alexandria school system.

The AFD will use the funds to purchase a "Sparky the Firedog" inflatable "Whopper Hopper" as a fire prevention tool for children. It will be used at open houses, fundraisers, the fair, Fire Prevention Week and other events. A small trailer will also be purchased.

The APD will use the gift for its patrol division to help maintain public safety.

--Approved an exception to planning for Reed and Kay Hvezda. This will allow them to split off 12.61 acres of their property to develop a new "travel plaza" truck stop along Evergreen Lane near Highway 27 West and County Road 45.

In a related action, the city approved an agreement with the developer of the travel plaza, Donnerite, to improve Evergreen Lane, which is currently a gravel road.

The cost to make the 850-foot road into an urban street with curb and gutter is estimated at $360,600. The city will cover $71,882 of the cost. The developer agreed to pay the rest.

An engineering agreement for the project was also approved. Widseth Smith Nolting and Associates will receive $56,508.

The project is expected to start in the early fall and be completed this year.

--Approved a final plat for Runestone Village Two. The city approved the preliminary plat for the project back in 1997. The construction of phase one has been completed for some time.

The preliminary plat for phase two included 10 units; the final plat reduces that number to seven and dedicates right-of-way for the easterly portion of Rosewood Lane.

All the units must connect to public utilities that are available via 6th Avenue. Any connection to public utilities in Rosewood Lane will require connection charge payments.

--Accepted a petition for annexation from Douglas County for an 11-acre parcel of land at the Douglas County Fairgrounds along Cardinal Lane in LaGrand Township.

This is the piece of property the county plans as the future site of the public works department. The current public works site on 3rd Avenue West is now being considered as a site for the new county jail/law enforcement center.

--Approved a sidewalk easement for Blue Spruce Development in the Burgen Sunrise property. A portion of the sidewalk was moved during construction outside of the public right-of-way. The developer was responsible for all expenses.

--Approved major changes in the "Lakes 38" bike race that was originally set for July 12. New organizers - George Odio with Subway and The Bike and Fitness Company - are now running the event and have renamed it "Alexandria 35 Bike Race and Tour."

The race date has been changed to Sunday, July 13. Organizers hope that it will attract riders who will be competing in a race in St. Cloud on July 12.

--Was informed that the county assessor will conduct local board of appeal and equalization training on July 21. State law requires at least one city council member to attend the training at least once every four years.

--Was informed that the Douglas County Board will hold its annual meeting to talk about current and future highway projects on Wednesday, June 25 at 7 p.m. at the Public Works Center.

--Approved, with conditions, a permit for TNT Fireworks to sell fireworks out of a tent in the Burger King North parking lot. The city wants to make sure the street where the tent is located has been officially vacated and that no sales have taken place before the permit was issued. The site must also be cleared by the city fire marshal.

--Proclaimed July 11, 2008 as Douglas County Relay for Life Day in Alexandria.

The event, held at Citizens Field in Alexandria, raises funds and awareness for the fight against cancer.

Relay for Life organizers want to "Paint the Town Purple" on July 7-11 by encouraging people to wear purple clothes, have purple window displays, hang purple ribbons from light poles and so on. There will be a competition for the businesses and teams for the best window display.

--Issued a peddler's license to Big E's Premium Corn, which will set up in the O'Reilly's parking lot.