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Resident objects to apartments, city planner says zoning fits

Ken Olson stands near the property he doesn't want to see developed.

When Ken Olson looks outside his house of 33 years at Broadway and Orange streets, he sees the future. It fills him with dismay and anger.

For now, he still sees a woods teeming with a diverse ecosystem, a "treasure trove" of opossums, squirrels, raccoons, skunks, rabbits, deer, orioles, wrens, woodpeckers, bluebirds, wildflowers, roses, ferns, blackberries, raspberries, and more that thrive under a canopy of trees that extend to the South Fork tributary.

Olson's even gone in those woods -- some of which lie on university property -- and found edible morels.

But Olson fears this natural urban oasis is about to be bulldozed into oblivion.

Last spring he received notice that a developer wants to build apartments soon.

The 69-year-old Olson, a senior lecturer in the UW-River Falls English Department, said, "I would like to see the building of these apartments stopped," Olson says. "I'm hoping some citizens or an organization will come forward and take control of this land, maybe have it as some sort of nature preserve that could be used for educational purposes.

"Yes, I argue this as an environmentalist, and I take exception to a building project designed to exploit for profit a pristine wooded habitat.

"So where should you build? You don't build where it will destroy a beautiful pristine woods. You go somewhere else where it's less invasive, maybe somewhere like the River Falls Motel, which is for sale and cheap, but you don't build in an environmentally sensitive area near a river."

Olson said he's watched certain parts of River Falls, particularly along Cascade Avenue and Johnson Street, get built up and paved over during the past decades.

"Where there was once prairies, woods and wildflowers, there is now a mass of cement and apartment complexes," he said. "That hurts our town. We're missing the boat when we let that transformation happen."

Olson wouldn't mind others rallying to his cause.

Pointing out that the South Fork Suites residence hall will soon double in size, Olson asked: "Do we really need more student apartments here in this neighborhood?"

City Planning Director Buddy Lucero said his staff has been reviewing the building proposal called CampusView Apartments. He said local developer and property owner Matthew Twomey is easy to work with and receptive to modifications.

Lucero said the three building apartments for CampusView mesh with the neighborhood's multi-family/high-density zoning.

Because there are no zoning issues, neither the Plan Commission nor City Council gets involved in the apartment project. Instead, Lucero will likely give his OK sometime this month.

Lucero said that so far, Twomey has met all design standards and complies with the city's stormwater law that protects the quality of the Kinnickinnic and South Fork rivers.

According to Lucero, CampusView Apartments will have 31 total living units, more than 90 parking spaces (exceeding legal requirements), abundant green space and a sidewalk linked to the university trail system.

One of the buildings will be two stories with seven units. The other two will be three stories with 12 units each.

Once the plans are approved, Lucero said building and grading permits are needed. He added that the apartment building fits well with the rest of the neighborhood.

"It's not located in a conservation area," Lucero said. "There is a variety of development there already, from the halfway house to single-family homes and even some mobile homes.

"The apartments will also be on a slope, making them less visible, but this will still be a change because there's nothing on the property right now.

"We've also made sure there will be sufficient landscaping around the parking lot to give it a buffer and provide for a softer look."

Read more details on this story in the July 26 print edition of the River Falls Journal.