Preserving the view of Lake Minnetonka from Water Street in downtown Excelsior is more important than re-creating a historic waterfront pavilion, many residents said during opening discussions about a waterfront development proposal.

"The view of the lake from Water Street is the city's biggest asset," said resident David James. And a building at the end of Water Street "would really wall the city off from the lake," said resident Bob Bolles.

The city's Heritage Preservation Commission on Tuesday heard the first public reaction to a plan from developer Jon Monson of Landschute Group, who wants to re-create a lakeshore pavilion that drew people to Excelsior to dance and bowl and picnic from 1904 to 1922.

The site where it stood -- and where Monson wants to rebuild -- is near the city docks and adjacent to the lakefront Commons Park. The spot has been a city park for the past 80 years.

Some residents attended the standing-room-only meeting to speak in favor of Monson's plan. "It will enhance the vitality of our historic city," said Paul Stark. Charlie Thompson said, "I think it's generally a good idea. It comes from the right kind of guy."

Monson is credited with the successful handling of two other key historic sites in Excelsior. He saved the prominent 1888 Wyer-Pearce house by wrapping a small condominium project around the residence.

He also renovated an old hardware store that now has Jake O'Connor's, an Irish pub, on the main floor and offices for Monson's firm upstairs.

Monson has said his experience with those projects started him thinking about re-creating the pavilion.

The commission discussed the matter but did not vote on the proposal, said City Manager Pat Klaers.

Whose history?

Members of the commission, which is charged with protecting Excelsior's historic heritage, wondered about what is more important to the history of the community -- the open view that has been there for the past 80 years or the pavilion that predated it.

Some commissioners said they prefer historic preservation to re-creation, Klaers said.

The city's Planning Commission will hold another review and public comment session at 7 p.m. Feb. 6 at the Southshore Community Center, 5735 County Club Road in Shorewood.

That group will look closely at the physical details of the 35-foot-tall development, including two key points reported Tuesday: Monson wants to build 5 feet from the shoreline in the footprint of the original building, but current standards require a 50-foot setback from the water. And a storm-water retention pond for the pavilion would have to built on the adjacent Commons Park because the building would cover most of the site, leaving no room for the pond.

A social center

Showing historic slides, Monson said the old pavilion was the social center of Excelsior. The new one could become the city's version of a town hall, he said.

Pulling up a recent snapshot of the site, showing it dotted by the garbage barrels that serve summer cruise boats, he said, "We think there is an opportunity lost by what we have there today."

Monson said the proposal would have several benefits for the public, including a new parking ramp behind City Hall and a town history museum and public restrooms on the ground floor.

The new building would continue to be the docking and ticketing location for cruise boats. All trash barrels would be concealed, he said.

Above the lake level, the building would feature a family-friendly restaurant with outside seating on a veranda, Monson said. Upstairs, he also has envisioned shops, an event center and even a possible new home for the public library.

"If this proposal doesn't have a public purpose, this project shouldn't happen," he said.

Monson said he is seeking building rights and a long-term lease over the city park property. He has not proposed to buy the land.

"Where does Excelsior want to go?" Monson asked those attending the meeting. "The main thing is to provide this information so you as the public can decide where you want Excelsior to go."

Several residents said they want the city to stay a small town. One woman said she fears more traffic. Another said the site has always been a place where cars can drive out onto the lake ice in the winter and she wouldn't want that to be lost.

"We have great appreciation for the small, intimate and sleepy nature of our town," said Catherine Dougher. The proposed development "may bring a certain element of greater elegance and greater cityhood that is not so sleepy."

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711