Task force zeros in on plan for downtown Elk River

Click here to see the proposed vision for downtown Elk River.

Click here to see what Elk River City Council candidates have to say about downtown.

by Joni Astrup

Associate editor

After months of study, a proposed plan has emerged for a 432-acre area in and around downtown Elk River.

A downtown task force was convened last November to develop a plan to address changes to the core of Elk River brought on by Highway 10 modifications anticipated over the next several decades, according to Elk River Planning Manager Jeremy Barnhart.

A 400-acre area in and around downtown Elk River is the focus of a new study called Mississippi Connections Redevelopment Framework.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation’s (MnDOT) long-range plan is for Highway 10 to evolve into a freeway as it comes through downtown Elk River. To make room, the railroad tracks would shift a bit to the north. With the freeway status, there would be interchanges and access into downtown would change.

While the shift to freeway is not anticipated for years, the new downtown plan is designed to strengthen the downtown area so it can better weather those changes, Barnhart said.

An open house to gather comments on the plan was held earlier this month, and another open house will be held Monday, Oct. 22.

After that, the task force will make necessary changes and prepare the document for the Elk River Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) review Nov. 5 and City Council review Nov. 19.

The study, called the Mississippi Connections Redevelopment Framework, is billed as a long-range vision for the 400-acre core of Elk River. Barnhart said the study area has long been considered the historic heart of the city.

Stewart Wilson, chair of the HRA, said many urban cities struggle to form a downtown.

“Elk River already has a downtown and has had it for over 150 years. However, as the traffic patterns continue to shift, the businesses and neighborhoods in the area are changing and in some cases suffering,” he said during a joint meeting of the HRA and city council earlier this month.

The downtown task force was formed by the Elk River City Council to look at how to plan for the future to keep a strong, healthy downtown in the face of possible changes to Highway 10 as planned by MnDOT, Wilson said.

Wilson co-chaired the downtown task force with Dana Anderson, chair of the Elk River Planning Commission.

A draft of the plan.

Goals outlined

The plan breaks the study area into six sub areas with goals for each, Barnhart said. Those sub areas include Recreational Opportunities, Core Downtown, Highway 10 Corridor, North of Highway 10 — Jackson Avenue and Fourth Street Corridors, Residential Neighborhoods and Proctor and Quinn Avenues. Here’s a recap:

Recreational Opportunities: Prime recreation opportunities identified within the study area include River’s Edge Commons Park, Bailey Point, Handke Stadium, Lions Park and the Mississippi and Elk rivers.

“All of these are assets that will bring people to the study area,” Barnhart said. The plan recommends strategies to build on the strengths of those recreational assets.

Core Downtown: The task force sees an opportunity to strengthen downtown by polishing the rough edges a bit, Barnhart said, through street beautification and pedestrian amenities.

“We’re trying to get people downtown and be able to walk and linger, window shop, things like that,” he said.

The task force likes the idea of a “hard boundary” to keep commercial development south of Highway 10 from encroaching on residential neighborhoods to the west.

A pedestrian connection over or underneath Highway 10 to link those two neighborhoods is a key point, he said.

Highway 10: The “front door” to Elk River, Barnhart said there is interest in improving the look of the Highway 10 corridor through downtown using tools like beautification and code enforcement. For many people, that is their only experience of

Some examples of possible signage for the greater downtown area.

Elk River, Barnhart said of Highway 10 through downtown.

North of Highway 10 — Jackson Avenue and Fourth Street Corridors: This is the area in the plan that will probably see the most change when Highway 10 and the railroad shift to the north, Barnhart said. There’s some interest in creating “hard boundaries” between residential neighborhoods and non-residential areas north of Highway 10 and in developing historic districts or design guidelines or other tools, where appropriate, to help people maintain or improve their properties.

Proctor and Quinn Avenues: Barnhart said this is another area of likely major change due to Highway 10 becoming a freeway. At that point, MnDOT envisions Proctor Avenue being elevated and going over Highway 10 and the railroad tracks. “This will drastically alter the character of that neighborhood,” Barnhart said. Ultimately, when those changes occur, Barnhart said it’s seen as more of a business park area with uses like offices and industrial.

Preserving the history

The Houlton building at the corner of Jackson and Main in downtown Elk River dates to 1903.

In general, Barnhart said the task force felt it was very important to preserve the buildings downtown even if they don’t necessarily meet the state or federal definition of “historic.”

Houses in neighborhoods near the downtown area are also considered a unique asset, he said.

“These are prime assets that a lot of cities try to create and you just can’t do that,” Barnhart said.

This illustrates an idea for historical photo kiosks, where people could see an old photo of a building and compare it with the way the building looks today. In this case, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, 1326 4th St., retains much of its historical character.
Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Elk River today.
Old photograph of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Elk River.

There also is interest in having a new signage system to bring the whole study area together. Another idea is having kiosks along the sidewalk at various points with a historic photo of the area to see what it looked like in the past. One example presented was Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, which looks virtually unchanged today from how it looks in an old photograph.

Primary elements of the proposed Illustrative Master Plan

Greater Downtown    Area – General

•Identify opportunities to visually improve the Highway 10 corridor by adding areas of landscaping, lighting, visual features and removing blight.

•Maintain the integrity of single family neighborhoods by encouraging opportunities for reinvestment.

•Maintain historic character of the area by:

-rehabilitation of the “Brick and South Main blocks”

The water tower near Highway 10 and Jackson Avenue. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.

-maintaining the water tower at Jackson Avenue

-designating historic single family residential areas

-commemorative signage

-establishing design standards for new development that reflect characteristics of the past

•Establish identifiable pedestrial corridors to enhance traffic patterns and connections throughout the study area.

Recreational Opportunities

•Identify appropriate locations along the rivers for public access.

•Work with Elk River Municipal Utilities to screen or relocate outdoor storage.

•Establish a trail system throughout the study area.

•Create interpretive signs to highlight historic occurrences and view sheds.

•Promote people-generating activities such as farmers markets, festivals, concerts and sidewalk sales to expand and enhance citizen activity in the study area.

Core Downtown

•Establish the Mississippi River as the significant recreational amenity by creating a variety of public access opportunities, physical connections and activities within the study area.

•Establish specialized commercial land uses in the core downtown (e.g. hotel, restaurant, banquet facility).

•Protect the large-scale massing of buildings in the core downtown that establish the character of the core area.

•Use structured parking in the core downtown to provide parking necessary to support diversity of uses in the downtown area.

North of Highway 10

•Reconfigure roadway patterns through the study area to respect the Highway 10 future plan.

•Concentrate employment-generating land uses (e.g. office/medical) north of Highway 10 to bring daytime users that support the core downtown commercial.

•Concentrate mixed uses in taller buildings at the intersection of Main Street and Fourth Street to maximize views of the Mississippi River.

•Manage storm water drainage through a greenway concept that connects Lions Park to maximize views of the Mississippi River.

•Establish higher-density residential around Lions Park to increase its value and desirability.