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Talking Points -- Morris gets a chance to see its future in

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Anyone who has tried to negotiate the convoluted streets and avenues of downtown St. Paul can relate to the idea of how nice it might be to just start all over.

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If you've ever spent the better part of a lunch hour waiting for a train to crawl through downtown Morris, you might have been thinking along those same lines.

Awhile back, Sue Granger came in with an interesting black and white photo of an old drawing that showed what it might be like if Morris had an underpass, allowing vehicle traffic to continue on unimpeded by the trains.

We'd all like to remake the physical layoutsof our towns to some degree. As time passes, something central to our daily lives, such as train traffic, needed to be centrally located. But with the advent of the automobile, train travel diminished and those tracks so vital to the core of our lives soon became, at times, a nuisance instead.

We look at neighborhoods and what they've become and wonder what it would be like to be able to draw it all up again, with an eye to the future.

But that's unrealistic, for many reasons -- primarily because of money. The underpass idea was a fabulous one, but Granger just shook her head when she tried to calculate the cost and the disruption something like that would require today.

But Morris is in a unique position among area towns. The vast expanse of land that not so long ago was teeming with school children during the weekdays and football fans on Friday nights sprawls out through the middle of Morris' east side, like a blank canvas awaiting paint and talent to turn it into something special.

Redeveloping the former Morris Area Elementary School property is as close to a do-over as any town could get. The chance to create an entire neighborhood on 17.5 acres within the city's urban confines. The school -- most of it, anyway -- was a beautifully constructed thing, and planners who began working with the property when the new elementary school opened marveled at the forethought of those who originally conceived of the land-use for educational purposes many decades before.

Now, in keeping with that tradition, the city and its residents have an opportunity to redevelop the land into something that will usher in the future and potentially stand as an example to small communities as to how they can evolve in the years ahead.

The Elementary School Redevelopment Committee has been hard at work for several years, deciding on the best way to reuse the land. Barring a miracle, it's not likely any part of the existing school building will be salvaged. But the public will get to see how an entire neighborhood can be built from scratch when plans for the property are displayed at the ARS Soils Lab, in Morris, at 7 p.m., March 17.

Through a grant from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, building architects and a landscape architect have designed a neighborhood that includes features never-before seen. When planners wanted to find a similar one to use as a baseline, they found nothing like it existed.

The plans call for creatively "green" building designs for single-family, duplex and multiple-occupant dwellings. There are plans for a geo-thermal heating and cooling system to serve the entire area, and there will be minimal disruption of the landscape to maintain the integrity of the property.

Ecologically and economically sustainable. A way to live a more simple, enjoyable life knowing that you are doing little damage to the environment and your bank accounts. A neighborhood that could live on as the living benchmark for Morris' continuing development for decades, and not as a pipe dream in an old photograph.

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