Rochester City Council approves development plan for new waterfront neighborhood

ROCHESTER — A city-owned downtown property near the Zumbro River is ripe for more than $300 million in development for parks and trails, housing and commercial space, an outdoor movie theater and Moreover.

Rochester officials want to transform about 5.5 acres of land east and west of the Olmsted County Government Center between 2nd and 4th Streets SE. in a prominent waterfront neighborhood that connects to downtown and the Mayo Clinic. After a year of working on the Riverfront Small Area Plan, the city is preparing to partner with private developers to bring the plan to fruition.

“There’s a lot to do over the next four or five years,” Rochester City Councilman Patrick Keane said. Rochester City Council unanimously approved the plan on Monday.

Community input and task forces have helped shape the project, which includes two mixed-use towers east of the Government Center that can provide up to 500 housing and commercial spaces, as well as more public park land and a possible kayak launch.

To the west, the old Red Owl and Time Theater building could be redeveloped, partially or completely demolished under three scenarios. The Second Street parking ramp would be demolished for another potential mixed-use tower, while the land near 4th Street would become a public recreation area that could be used for lawn games near the outdoor theater and a potential community garden.

The area’s green space would increase from approximately half an acre to 2.5 acres. Part of the plan calls for the city to get rid of some of the area’s upper flood walls, replacing them with leveled terraces in an effort to make the riverfront more aesthetically pleasing and trail-friendly.

The plan estimates approximately $350 million in development costs through public and private funds. Destination Medical Center, the nonprofit overseeing $5.6 billion in economic development in downtown Rochester, could help support the project, according to DMC executive director Patrick Seeb.

David Gamble of Gamble Associates, the firm contracted to help develop the plan, said he was surprised residents wanted more density in the area. He also noted that the city of Rochester has more control than usual over what the area will look like in the future.

“This is where the community really needs to continue this conversation and help imagine how this space is being used,” he said. “The city is really in the driver’s seat here.”

Some residents have expressed concern that the plan will result in higher property taxes that would stifle small businesses. John Kruesel, who owns a building and runs an antique shop downtown, worried that taxes would drive unique shops downtown.

“What will be the safety net for small businesses that exist now or in the future?” he said.

Board member Kelly Kirkpatrick grew up in the area near the Zumbro River. She became emotional as she described how residents frequented businesses and played in the river – seemingly a world away from the dearth of people and amenities near the river now.

“I so desperately want this area activated,” she said.