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Council delays vote on housing project

Several community member and city council members spoke out against a resolution supporting the development of 70 units of housing at 700 S. Main St.

The city was approached by Kansas-based development group Cohen-Esrey. The group asked for support of the proposed multifamily housing project at property formerly owned by the McEwen family.

Of the 70 units, 56 are proposed to be at or near market rate, and 14 would be for low and moderate income tenants. The developer planned to apply to WHEDA ( Wisconsin Housing and Redevelopment Authority) for tax credits and asked for the support of the city, which would help secure the grants.

Resident Cecil Bjork voiced his concern about the housing. He said it looked to him like the project was too big for the size of the lot.

"If you look at high density housing, if you look at the code, the parking lots don't meet setbacks, the building does not meet setbacks," he said. "You're looking at a project that doesn't fit the lot. I want you to really consider what's going on."

Resident Douglas Cudd also spoke against the development.

"It appears that you're going to give a large amount of money to develop a site for a private investor and by approving this resolution, I think you're going down the same path here as you went with the big hotel that was built on Main Street," Cudd said. "I don't understand why the city would want to help a developer from Kansas come into town and do a development ... if it's worth doing, have the Housing Authority do it. Why have a developer come in and cherry pick the city of River Falls?"

Resident Jerry Morrow spoke about the zoning, saying that land was already zoned for 40 units. He encouraged the city to look for local developers for projects like this one.

According to the proposal, the group was asking for

• An amendment to a South Main Street Study

• Upgrades to Sycamore and Broadway streets by the city with no cost to the developer

• A loan of $3.21 million for up to a 20-year term at rates negotiated by the Applicable Federal Rate (AFR), which is currently 2.5 percent

According to the city staff report in the council packet, a need for workforce housing was identified in the South Main Study report, which was approved earlier this year. The McEwen property, at 700 S. Main St., was identified as a "key factor to sure growth in the area."

The developer is requesting $912,174 in low income tax credits from WHEDA.

The total project cost is estimated to be $12.8 million. Rent is anticipated to be $950-$1,000 for a three-bedroom, $850 for a two-bedroom and $750 for a one-bedroom apartment. Parking and some recreation areas are planned to be available on site.

Management of the 70 units would be transferred to the River Falls Housing Authority, according to the city council packet.

Council member Jeff Bjork pulled the two items on the consent agenda regarding this project for discussion.

Bjork and council members Todd Bjerstedt and Scott Morrissette said they felt the issue was being moved along too quickly.

"I want to try to get this project done," Morrissette said. "I think it's needed and i think it would be something that's needed and I think it would be something that would spark South Main. It's just the place of it that makes me uncomfortable."

Bjork said he was also concerned about parking. He said it did not appear to him that the lot would offer enough parking for each unit.

"I am very much in favor of workforce housing," said council member Diane Odeen. "I'm very much in favor of projects like this ..." However, she said she wanted to know more about the WHEDA process, and more about this project in particular.

Assistant City Administrator Julie Bergstrom said that even if the council did not pass the resolution, that would not prevent the developer from being able to apply for the WHEDA grants.

"We don't take this lightly," said City Administrator Scot Simpson. "It's something that's on the agenda and available for council direction."

He said the council was free to modify the resolution, if it chose, and could perhaps add language saying the approval is contingent upon there being a demonstrated need in the housing study results.

He also said this was not the developer's first offer, nor are negotiations done. The development review stage has not yet been reached, he said.

"I understand where the council has been placed, or where the council is," Simpson said.

The council voted to table this issue, for further discussion at a later date.

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

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