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Public gets glimpse of 'green' plans for school site

A single-family home that is part of the elementary school property redevelopment plan.1 / 4
A duplex home that is part of the elementary school property redevelopment plan.2 / 4
A multi-occupant dwelling that is part of the elementary school property redevelopment plan.3 / 4
Jeff Howe of Dovetail Partners talked about green construction and the elementary school project during a public event Tuesday at the ARS Soils Lab in Morris.4 / 4

By Tom Larson, Sun Tribune

Consumers' satisfaction with their homes has been declining for 20 years, while at the same time peole who have chosen to build "green" have said they are delighted with their decision.

According to a leading advocate of green housing, that leaves Morris with a unique opportunity as it proceeds with the development of the old elementary school property in the city.

"The world is ripe, the U.S. is ripe, with all the environmental concerns and disatisfaction with housing," said Jeff Howe, chair of Dovetail Partners. "This is the perfect time to talk green."

Howe and landscape architect Adam Arvidson unveiled preliminary housing and development plans for the 17.5 acre school property at a public gathering Tuesday at the ARS Soils Lab.

About 60 people attended the event, which would indicate a strong level of interest in the community considering it was the same night the Morris Area boys basketball team was playing a subsection championship game across town at the University of Minnesota, Morris.

Dovetail Partners has been involved with the school property plans almost since the City of Morris purchased the property from the Morris Area School District in 2005.

In late January, Arvidson, of Treeline, and representatives from Stahl Architects presented the plans to the Morris City Council.

On Tuesday, Howe gave the audience a brief overview of what it means to build green, noting that it's really a simple concept that entails consumers using the land, the climate to their advantage, buying materials locally and ensuring that those materials are healthful. In green construction, builders are more in tune with the needs, lifestyles and finances of the individuals for whom they are constructing the home.

"They are very simple things and they are specific to us," Howe said. "One of the cornerstones of green is that you consider the users. ... You design around the economy of the individual as well as the site."

Arvidson said he and the Stahl architects used those principles in designing the elementary school property project.

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 $120,000, 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 create useable exterior space. Depending on how "flex lots" were developed, the site would contain between 75 to 93 housing units, Arvidson said.

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.

Property development committee member Sue Granger noted that the city is in "virgin territory" regarding the project. The committee has been trying to find comparable neighborhood projects to use for a benchmark and haven't found one, she said.

Melanie Fohl, Morris Housing Authority Director, reiterated a point she made to the City Council in January: 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."

But City Manager Blaine Hill and committee members cautioned that the plans are very preliminary.

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. Considerable work would need to be done to develop new zoning regulations for the site.

Third, Hill said the city would have to decide if the plan is what it wants to "lock into." Once the zoning and covenants are established, the neighborhood will have to take shape accordingly, Hill said.