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  • Kevin Elliott

Rochester seeks answers about developments

Rochester officials seeking a crystal ball to determine the future impact of development projects in the city approved partial funding on Monday, October 9, for the development of a community sustainability impact analysis.

"When you make a decision on a development, the good side of it is tax base. Let's say we can bring in two to three times million more of taxes to our general fund if 80 percent of these new projects that are on the horizon are approved. Pretty cool. That keeps tax base down, it keeps the burden off the tax payers and helps us pay for infrastructure. But there's a cost to it," said Rochester Deputy City Manager and Economic Development Director Nik Banda. "It could be traffic congestion, it could be people getting burned out on what we (the city) are becoming. Everybody wants to balance that, and the only way to balance it is a community-wide look."

To provide that look into the future, Banda recommended, at the behest of the city's planning commission, that city council approve contracting with McKenna Associates to create a sustainability impact analysis. The analysis would look at the aggregate development pressures on the city from projects in their totality, rather than just looking at them as individual projects.

"This impact analysis will do just that – take the aggregate of proposals we are reviewing along with future buildout opportunities that may come before us with adjustment to the master plan and all of the zoning classifications we have been modifying in the last 12 months and be a guide for both us as well as potential developers, as to how we navigate their requests in Rochester," Banda said.

John Jackson, owner of McKenna Associates, presented the city with a proposal for the analysis in the amount of $56,300. He said he believes the cost of the analysis could be born from increased application fee revenues received from site plans, special exception, special project fees for potential projects. While Banda said he agreed on the funding aspect, he noted the city's current fee structure is "woefully inadequate" and doesn't currently cover the cost of planning consultant fees, let alone the proposed analysis. Banda instead recommended using building department review costs to cover the costs of the analysis, which he said are at an all-time high.

While city council members at the meeting were all in favor of having an analysis conducted like the one being presented, some questioned whether the scope would be expanded to include the greater community outside of the core downtown area. Some council members questioned the cost of the study and why a request for bids wasn't conducted to consider other firms and competitive prices.

Councilwoman Ann Peterson said she wasn't sure any other company would have the same knowledge about the city that McKenna has and be able to provide an analysis at a lower cost. However, she questioned the scope of the study.

"I'm concerned it was only for the downtown district. I would like it for the whole city – any redevelopment of any neighborhood," Peterson said.

McKenna Associates is under contract with the city as its planning consultant, and is the firm responsible for drafting the city's master plan, which lays out long-term development goals of the city. The ability to develop a future sustainability impact study was included in McKenna's request for proposal as its planning consultant which was approved by city council, Rochester City Manager Blaine Wing said. That pitch and McKenna's familiarity with the city were two factors in recommending the analysis be conducted by the firm and not be let out to the competitive bid process.

"I think it should go out to bid," said councilman and former mayor Stuart Bikson. "Institutional knowledge is one reason we didn't go out to bid for all those years (with prior councils). For $50,000 not to bid it, I think that's wrong. I can't support it unless it's bid out to other companies."

City council approved contracting with McKenna to conduct the analysis on the condition that the Rochester Downtown Development Authority (DDA) agree to contribute $20,000 of its own money to pay for it. The motion, which was introduced by councilman Ben Giovanelli, who also serves on the DDA board, was approved by a vote of 6-1, with Stuart Bikson in opposition.

"If (the DDA) denies it, it come back before us," Giovanelli said. "It could make it onto the DDA's agenda for October 18, then the city council meets on October 23.”

Councilman Jeffrey Cuthbertson said while there is some angst about the cost of the study, massive pressure is on the planning commission and council to move projects than will ultimately be approved, creating a need for such a tool to assess what projects are best for the city.

"The reality of the property market in Rochester, that for commercial real estate, even with significant environmental contamination, is approaching in excess of $1 million an acre. The property owners who are selling are commanding huge sums of money," Cutherbertson said, referencing a recent office building development at a brownfield redevelopment site. "This conversation puts a bow on why we need this study.

"I would also note that to bid it out after the fact is basically saying, 'here's the project plan, now you have to beat this number, and then hope you can get something by December 1 because we have a bunch of developments that need to be considered."

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