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Viewpoint: Vote no and protect Lake City's riverfront

I have a word of caution for Lake City voters. Passage of the referendum to abandon some of Washington Street would open a can of worms.

In Lake City's Charter, our governing document, there is a metes-and-bounds description of lakefront area in which city-owned property is protected from privatization.

The provision's purpose is to protect our lakeshore, the city's most priceless public asset, from being sold at the whim of a sitting council. I know this because I was on the Charter Commission when 80 percent of Lake City voters approved that provision.

Under the mandate, city-owned property lying within the protected area is prohibited from being sold or leased for a term longer than five years unless approved by majority in a public referendum.

Currently, there is a new developer's appetite for private ownership of protected Lake City lakefront property, specifically the two properties surrounding the Nosh and Rabbit's Bakery sites (Block 13).

The Conoco Station site and the southern stub of Washington Street on block 13 are properties now sought for private ownership and development. However, both sites are publicly owned and lie safely within Lake City's intended area of public lakefront preservation and safekeeping.

However, in this coming election, our ballot contains a referendum that gives blanket permission for the Lake City Council to violate the charter's lakefront protection in favor of entertaining a theoretical development proposal: a hotel to revive the downtown.

My years of experience as a redevelopment consultant to the Minneapolis City Council, St. Paul Housing Authority and others leads me to anticipate that the hotel idea will go sideways and morph into a residential condo proposal. I have seen the new Block 13 proposal and scores of similar pitches.

From an investment perspective, new multi-story hotels in Mid-America are bankable where occupancy proves to be the highest. It is unlikely that Lake City qualifies. Luxury condominiums are bankable in safe high-amenity locations. Lake City can qualify.

In the real estate development business, the money is made going in.

Acquiring a site at a bargain price and using its true value as bankable development equity enables the developer to ultimately pocket the markup, even if the development opportunity is delayed, resold or is less successful than promised.

The unsubstantiated suggestion of vitalizing the downtown has prompted a horse-before-the-cart (a fire, ready, aim) sequence to deciding the wisest future use of Block 13. I see this as a sequencing error whereby Lake City might sell protected property on the cheap to back a revitalization intention. Then, for lack of hotel feasibility, the development being reframed as a condo project allowing the site to be first bought at a subsidized hotel price, and subsequently resold at a premium-housing price. In hindsight, that would constitute a betrayal of the public and an embarrassment to the Lake City Council.

As drafted, the referendum gives our City Council encouragement to jump the gun, facilitating a project before it has been thought through. It has not been established that a multi-story hotel or condo building is an appropriate and/or compatible use for Block 13.

Even were we to ignore the legal issues and the proposed hotel/condo issues of floodplain, parking, blocking of public vista, sailboat noise at night, and hotel or condo rooms looking into boat cabins where sailors and their children change clothes; a multi-story development on the subject site might not end well.

From a public legacy standpoint we don't need exceptions to (or legal loopholes in) Lake City's legal protection, preservation, and continuation of our lakeshore as public domain.

Also, it has apparently been overlooked that development of Block 13 would require a second referendum for the utilization of the now publicly owned Conoco site. That makes the present referendum both premature and redundant for any practical purpose.

The future of Block 13 needs to be more thoroughly thought through.

Please vote against the premature referendum. Protect our waterfront. Vote no.

Sam Poppleton

Lake City

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