A senior housing project proposed near Hugo's Lions Park and possible major upgrades to the park itself could help efforts to develop downtown.

The city adopted a plan to guide downtown development in 2007, envisioning a mix of commercial, higher-density residential development and community amenities in a more compact, concentrated central business district.

But the lingering recession has made private investment difficult to attract to the core downtown area, focused on Hwy. 61/Forest Boulevard from County Road 8 to 147th Street, and extending under the plan north to 150th Street, south to 140th Street, east to Egg Lake, and west to the bend in County Road 8 at the old LaValle farm.

That could change now that property owner Marvin LaValle and developer Bill Lentsch of Partnership Investment Group LLC have outlined plans for senior and other higher-density housing on LaValle property west of the park.

The city's Parks Commission has been working on plans to renovate Lions Park to make it a better venue for community events, said City Administrator Bryan Bear. The converging proposals are in line with the city's downtown plan, Bear said.

Together, they could form the western end of what Bear termed a public corridor running from the LaValle property through Lions Park to City Hall and across Hwy. 61, where the city owns 3.5 acres of land between the highway and Egg Lake.

The city is seeking a developer to build a restaurant or other project on its lakefront property, which Bear said is next door to the site where Carpenter's Steak House operated until it was destroyed in a January 2010 fire.

"It's exactly what the downtown plan is looking for in terms of higher-density residential and improvements to the park," Bear said. 

Lions Park, which hosts community events headlined each June by Good Neighbor Days, likely would have most of its present structures removed and replaced with a large pavilion, an amphitheater that could double as an ice skating rink and space set up for a carnival and vendors, Bear said. Existing playground equipment and a skate park likely would remain.

With little private investment having taken place since the downturn, the city has focused on removing blighted buildings and making improvements to streets, water mains and other infrastructure in downtown neighborhoods, Bear said. Hwy. 61 has undergone a major renovation, and a traffic signal was installed at the 147th Street intersection.

The LaValle project envisions three buildings with 244 units to the west of Lions Park. Lentsch cautioned that development would take place in stages over a few years, with the first phase likely to involve assisted-living and memory-care units; a market study found an immediate need for 66 of those units in the Hugo area.

A second phase likely would consist of a congregate care center. CommonBond Communities, a nonprofit developer, would build a 54-unit apartment building for residents who need affordable housing.

Lions Park would grow by 2.45 acres with a parkland donation from the LaValle property, which would be made in place of the donation of a park fee required under city code.

Mayor Tom Weidt, who has been helping the Parks Commission with its Lions Park plan since he was a City Council member, said other high-density housing projects proposed in recent years have stalled because of the economy.

"It would be very good for the city," Weidt said of the LaValle housing project. "We need some diversity of housing, we need some life-cycle options like this provides, and it also will provide some different income levels of housing.

"It's an opportunity for new residents to come to Hugo and for older residents who would like to stay in Hugo."

Todd Nelson is a Twin Cities freelance writer.