CC sale on track

Zoning change recommended again, council OKs ordinance

by Tom Coombe -

A day after city officials moved closer to selling the Ely Community Center, the city’s planning commission recommended a zoning change that’s pivotal to the deal.
Following a public hearing dominated by opponents of the current plan, the commission voted unanimously to recommend that the 80-year-old landmark be rezoned to residential transition.
The zoning change is a contingency in the purchase offer submitted by Jimmy and Africa Yoon, the Minneapolis couple who propose to buy the building for $30,000 and redevelop it for Korean culture-inspired camps.
The sale moved closer to reality Tuesday, when council members approved the first reading of an ordinance authorizing the transaction.
Council members seem certain to also approve the zoning change, which was already approved once but was rescinded - and the process restarted - because of an error.
Opposition at several city meetings, including the Wednesday hearing which attracted an audience of about 20 people, has failed to sway city officials.
The planning commission, however, paid homage to sentiments expressed during the nearly two-hour hearing.
The commission’s recommendation to rezone the building, which clears the way for part of the building to be used as a residence for the Yoons, included a request that the council and the new buyer consider parking issues around the building as well as the building’s nature and history.
“In my opinion, there were very legitimate concerns that came up, they’re just outside of our scope,” said planning commission member Jerritt Johnston.
City attorney Kelly Klun cautioned, however, that once a transaction is finalized the city has little say over how the building may be used or altered, as long as it’s within the framework of current laws.
“Once you sell a building, an owner can do as they wish,” said Klun.
Commission members and Tim Riley, the city’s zoning administrator, tried to limit the discussion to the zoning change request.
Riley noted that a zoning change would be required in the event of a city sale to any party, while Klun indicated that a new owner is likely to be back before the planning commission in the future in search of a conditional use permit.
Most of the speakers, however, honed in on the sale to the Yoons, who plan to do business as the K America Foundation, with some saying that they preferred the city sell the building instead to Angela Campbell.
Campbell, an Elyite and current city council candidate, has offered $35,000 for the building and wants to repurpose it as a civic and conference center, a use more consistent with the building’s long history as a home for weddings, dinners and other special events.
Commission members heard from Campbell Wednesday, as she zeroed in on the proposed use for the building should the Yoons take ownership.
“They’re taking a public building and turning it into a home,” said Campbell. “And the Community Center is not a home. It’s a public building architecturally designed for the public.”
Both the Yoons and Campbell need a massive influx of grants and donations to bring their respective business plans to fruition.
The Yoons hope to raise $3 million over several years to renovate the building and eventually turn it into a place where they will hold Korean language and arts camps.
Campbell’s plan also hinges on a similar amount of fundraising.
For now, the Yoons’ offer is the only one under consideration by the city and is on a path to be finalized, despite criticism from neighbors and other area residents.
In a letter read into the record Wednesday, former Elyites Frank and Charmaine Moravitz, who still own a home near the building, told city officials “we do not see a need for a Korean cultural center” and charged “by allowing this you are taking many steps backward.”
Gerald Tyler, a Morse Township resident, said he believes the Korean camp proposal “is likely to create parking problems for the residents and commercial businesses” nearby, as well as raise noise levels while reducing nearby property values.
Anne Koskinen also lives near the Community Center and said she supports the concept of Korean camps in town but said the city building “is the wrong building for it.”
Steve Saari asked that the building be preserved “for our history,” while Dennis Miller told the commission “ you can’t be myopic - to approve this rezoning is a defacto approval of the sale.”
The commission also heard some support for the zoning change, including a letter from Doreen Steklasa that was read into the record.
Steklasa said that both the building and neighborhood have fallen into disrepair and that the sale offered a chance to breathe new life into the area.
Commission members all went on record in support of the zoning change, but not before some wrangling.
Member Mike Banovetz at first pushed for a delay while issues including parking were explored. He had earlier called for the council to consider both the Yoon and Campbell offers.
Scott Mills, meanwhile, said he was comfortable that city council members would look out for the best interests of the public.
He also questioned whether the commission should take action against the zoning change.
“The problems that people are foreseeing are subsequent to the purchase,” said Mills.
Chairman George Burger said he was thankful for the citizen involvement at the hearing.
“You do bring up things we take to heart,” said Burger.
A move to finalize the sale to the Yoons could come as soon as the council’s Oct. 15 meeting.