After months of discussion, the Washington City Council voted Monday to create a new downtown zoning district that city officials said could help spur new construction and renovation in the city’s historic business district.
“Developers are lining up, expressing interest,” said Washington Community and Economic Development Director Sal Maniaci. In the initial proposal, the downtown district includes 96 properties stretching from Market Street westward to portions of Elm, Cedar and Olive streets.
“This district, a central business district, would allow for zero lot lines, mixed use with retail on the lower floor and residential on the second or third floors,” Maniaci said. It also would eliminate off-street parking requirements for businesses downtown, relying on public parking lots and on-street parking for downtown employees and shoppers.
Existing uses, Maniaci said, would be grandfathered into the zoning, so there would be minimal changes for current property owners.
“The biggest question we got from property owners was about their property taxes. This does not change their property taxes,” Maniaci said. Instead, Maniaci said it allows for property owners to reconsider the possibilities of how their properties could be used, something that has been happening organically over time.
“One of the things this does is to remove industrial use zonings from future use,” Maniaci said. “Some of these vacant properties are still industrial, but do we really think that bringing industrial use back downtown is still appropriate given how our downtown has evolved over the last 20 or 30 years?”
All current industrial uses, Maniaci said, would still be allowed.
Among the industrial zoned properties are: Bleckman Machine and Supply Co., 405 W. Main St.; Tibbe Power Co., 426 W. Front St.; and Missouri Meerschaum Co., 400 W. Front St.
The push to approve a proposed downtown commercial zoning district was nearly upended, though, by Tony Bequette, owner of the Tibbe Power Co. building and majority owner of Elijah McLean’s, a popular wedding and event venue at 600 W. Front St.
Bequette asked the council to extend the proposed district two blocks west to include Elijah McLean’s while also asking the council to carve out the Tibbe Power Co. building from the district.
“It is the only commercial property on Front Street not included in the district,” Bequette said, referencing the Elijah McLean’s property. The Washington Planning and Zoning Commission previously rejected Bequette’s request, citing concerns from neighbors about parking.
“I can guarantee you that Elijah’s was there long before all of those people who bought houses next to it came along,” Bequette said. Although the Planning and Zoning Commission rejected his request, Ward 1 Councilman Duane Reed hinted that he was open to it.
“I just think it’s strange that we can’t squeeze him in. It is clearly downtown. Elijah’s always has been,” Reed said.
Ultimately, the council voted 5-3 to refer the Elijah McLean’s property back to the Planning and Zoning Commission for further review at the commission’s November meeting. Ward 4 Councilman Joe Holtmeier, Ward 4 Councilwoman Gretchen Pettet and Ward 3 Councilman Greg Skornia voted against sending it back to the commission.
Washington Mayor Sandy Lucy said she believes the council made the right decision to send it back for further review.
“There is more to it than just rezoning,” Lucy said. City officials said Bequette wants to replace an existing event tent on his property with an outdoor pavilion that, under current building codes, would require Bequette to provide additional parking spaces.
In July, Bequette said to comply with the parking requirement, he would need to turn the Front Street-facing portion of the property into a parking lot. If included in the proposed downtown zone expansion, Bequette would not be required to add parking.
The council did approve Bequette’s request to remove the former Tibbe Power Co. building from the zone, creating and approving a 95-property central business district zone.
Bequette said the building’s current zoning gives him more options to find a tenant than the commercial district proposed by the city. The building is currently unoccupied.
In other business, the council decided to move forward with purchasing the city’s newest industrial park. More details about the industrial park are expected to be announced later this month.