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UPDATE: City embraces school site design but obstacles remain

Landscape architect Adam Regn Arvidson, of Treeline, reviewed redevelopment plans for the old Morris Area Elementary School property during a Morris City Council work session in January.1 / 2
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By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Elected officials rarely break into applause for any proposal put before them for consideration.

But members of the Morris City Council and the Elementary School Redevelopment Committee did give a hand to architects following their presentation at a council work session Tuesday.

Landscape Architect Adam Regn Arvidson, of Treeline, and Amanda Thomas and Chris Hawley of Stahl Architects gave the group an overview of its work to date, which is reaching its final phases.

The plan calls for minimal grading of the existing site while incorporating affordable housing and landscape features that are ecologically and economically sustainable.

The plan calls for three types of housing -- single family units, estimated to cost about $130,000, as well as town home and multi-person dwellings -- a geo-thermal heating and cooling system throughout the development, new configurations of a 50-foot lot model designed to make create useable exterior space. Depending on how "flex lots" were developed, the site would contain between 75 to 93 housing units, Arvidson said.

Dovetail Partners, which for several years has been working with the committee on the site, also has offered to pay for the construction of a model housing unit on the property, with the plan that it would sink profits from the sale of the property into more construction on the site.

The development also features various other design elements that create efficiencies while also retaining the flavor of the surrounding urban environment. The development would be modernized but in a way that would age well and accommodate individual tastes, enticing a range of potential residents.

Arvidson and the Stahl team have been working with the redevelopment committee to design the unique urban neighborhood on the 17.5-acre site of the former Morris Area Elementary School, which the city purchased from the Morris Area School District in 2005.

Green design and affordability are the plans hallmarks, which is not a common marriage, said City Manager Blaine Hill.

Hill said city officials and committee members have been trying to find comparable neighborhood projects to use for a benchmark and haven't found one.

"It's unique," he said, agreeing with committee member Sue Granger's assessment that projects that are taking a new direction might intrigue foundations and granting organizations and spur financial contributions.

Council member Twig Webster praised the design effort, saying it paid homage to the school site's past while embracing design and living standards of the future.

The housing designs had charm and the physical layout of the landscape was appealing.

"It's organized but not predictable," Webster said.

Council member Jeff Miller added that he toured a model home in Fargo that is similar to ones being proposed for the elementary school site and called it "impressive."

Melanie Fohl, Morris Housing Authority Director, also noted that the types of housing being proposed put the project in sync with a 2007 housing study of Morris, which, in part, concluded that the city needed to find alternatives to replace "functionally obsolete housing."

"This is very much in line with the recommendations of the housing study," Fohl said.

But the heady vibe of the presentation didn't obscure some very formidable obstacles to the project becoming a reality.

First, while the site infrastructure development costs would be minimal, with existing utilities already in place, housing starts and home purchases are at historic lows in a recessed economy. There's also no guarantee that the housing and landscape will appeal to enough potential buyers to make the project feasible as designed.

Second, nothing in the plan meets current city zoning standards. Margaret Kuchenreuther, a committee member and chair of the city's Planning Commission, said considerable work would need to be done to develop new zoning regulations for the site.

Third, while the council members appeared enthusiastic about the plan, they need to make a hard decision if this is the direction they want to take a large piece of urban property, Hill said, noting that "it won't be like any other neighborhood in the city."

The housing will be affordable, eco-friendly and energy efficient, he said, but once the zoning and covenants are established, the neighborhood will have to take shape accordingly.

"The question is, is that what we want to lock into," Hill said. "I think it's a great design, but the question is, is it the design we want to move on with into the future, and what's the next step."