The Baxter City Council approved a parking variance for Menards on Dellwood Drive, voting 4-1 in favor of the proposal.
The resolution allowing a smaller parking lot for Menards, as well as the conversion of a mezzanine warehouse area into retail space, faced criticism and debate during the meeting Tuesday, Jan. 19. The resolution permits Menards to have a parking lot with 187 fewer parking stalls than required by city ordinance.
Four members of the council voted in favor of the resolution. The lone dissenter was Mayor Darrel Olson.
Current ordinances stipulate a store and property of Menards’ size needs to have 510 parking stalls available to its customers and employees. To convert the mezzanine warehouse, the store would need more than 80 new stalls to meet code. Menards has been granted parking variances in the past, such as in 2018, when the council approved a 113-stall parking shortage to accommodate the store’s expansion. As was noted by council members, staffers and store representatives, the property has proven challenging and has been revisited numerous times, as the store sits near boggy wetlands that inhibit its ability to expand and accommodate increased motor and foot traffic over the years.
The Planning Commission recommended approval of the parking variance with specific conditions, while the Utilities Commission recommended denial on the grounds the site was already experiencing substantial overcrowding and there was available land for off-premise parking.
Much of the debate centered around whether the city should make an exception for Menards, as well as how the mezzanine area will affect the makeup of the property or violate the larger framework of Baxter’s zoning ordinances.
Tyler Edwards, a Menards representative for the virtual meeting, stated it is not the company’s intention to rock the boat or bully local municipalities into getting what it wants, and recent surges in parking overcrowding can be attributed to home renovation sales that have skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. He also stated the mezzanine would be opened to alleviate foot traffic congestion, but would still primarily function as back storage and wouldn’t constitute an actual sales floor.
“We acknowledge that we’re tight on space, we’re tight on parking, but what we’re asking for is not anything more than what’s already there today. We’re not changing anything. We don’t really want to turn the mezzanine into a sales floor and that’s not the intention,” Edwards said. “We want to save this location. This spot is worthwhile. We don’t think we’re quite at the point where we need to move the store, so we’re just asking you to help us out.”
Council member John Ward said he would support the resolution on the grounds the mezzanine warehouse was compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. City Administrator Brad Chapulis said the language of the variance stipulated that already, so the resolution wouldn’t have to be changed.
Council member Zach Tabatt said the mezzanine wouldn’t compromise the city’s statutes, as the area would remain mostly a storage area.
“As long as 49% or less of that space is for retail — it reads to me like maybe it’s not even retail space, it’s primarily used to store goods and products,” Tabatt said. “I just felt like the idea of going the extra distance on 84 extra parking stalls didn’t really seem like it really was necessary, and I know we’re working off of a formula code. It bothered me that we’d have to add that many parking spaces for what the specific ask is.”
Olson, however, remained unconvinced. While Menards has been granted more and more leeway than many businesses, these variances and exemptions haven’t addressed chronic pedestrian congestion on the property — congestion, Olson noted, that has been an issue long before the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem. At this point, he said, it’s a matter of what precedents are being established for future business acquisitions or expansions in the Baxter area.
“I gotta be real honest with you. When we had the second variance asking for 113 spots, I went along with it, but I was biting my lip. I sat there thinking about all the other businesses that we have not done that for and what repercussions may come from that,” Olson said. “We want to work with our people, but … we’re really stretched to the limits. I don’t know how we’re gonna explain that to anybody. I just don’t.”
“COVID-19 was a separate year, but it’s been (congested) before COVID-19,” Olson added. “It’s been a parking issue there. If we change the design to that upstairs or to retail — I know that’s not their intent — but once that happens, that’s carte blanche to have a second floor of the business. And then we pass this. There’s been no provision for parking. We’ve just turned a blind eye on that. So I think that in some cases we’ve created some of our own problems.”
In other business, the council:
Approved changes to a shared lot between 14398 and 14370 Dellwood Drive, which was previously designed to account for subterranean gas tanks at a Speedway gas station currently on site. The proposal also converts the existing gas station/car wash on the north lot into a drive-thru food establishment with additional retail tenant space.
With the proposed new use of the gas station, the gas tanks needed to be removed and the lot line readjusted. The gas pumps will be removed and the parking/drive aisle area will also be redesigned to accommodate the new use.
In addition, the council approved a development agreement and stormwater facilities maintenance agreement. Blaze Pizza is intending to redevelop the Speedway gas station. The development plan entails a hydrant for fire protection and a cut into Dellwood Drive to connect a sewer service.
Approved a gambling permit for the Confidence Learning Center to conduct gambling at Dough Bros Woodfire Kitchen.
Approved a cost-share agreement with Crow Wing County for bituminous surfacing of Woida Road. The estimated cost split would be 75% city and 25% Crow Wing County based on the amount of roadway located within the city limits. Furthermore, the council approved an agreement with architectural-engineering firm Widseth that amends a 2020 feasibility report for Woida Road in the increased amount of $4,525.
Approved a change order for the increased amount of $13,768.66 and a final pay estimate of $249,677.54 to J.R. Ferche Inc. for the 2019 Mapleton Road, Jasperwood Drive and Knollwood Drive area improvements and the 2019 south sanitary sewer interceptor improvements projects.
Approved a partial pay estimate with Anderson Brothers Construction Co. for the increased amount of $4,326 for the Lift Station No. 11 reconstruction project.
Approved a change order for $10,851 and a partial pay estimate of $18,902.15 with RL Larson Inc. for the 2020 south sanitary sewer interceptor, North Forestview improvements and North Forestview stormwater outfall improvements project.