Even as downtown Eau Claire has experienced a redevelopment boom in which dilapidated areas have been replaced by new housing, storefronts and a soon-to-open arts center, construction has not occurred at two key locations.
A large parking lot east of Phoenix Park known as Block 7 and a smaller space just east of the North Barstow Street parking ramp remain undeveloped. City officials hope a new effort will prompt building at those sites.
The city has set a deadline of noon Friday, Sept. 28, for builders to submit proposals to develop the sites. Proposals may be for both or just one of the sites.
City economic development administrator Mike Schatz said he hopes the request prompts building at those locations. Such projects would help pay off the remaining $12 million needed to fully pay for Tax Increment Financing District No. 8, which comprises much of downtown redevelopment in recent years.
“We hope this request prompts some additional interest in those sites,” Schatz said.
He said he believes two or three developers will submit plans.
“We think they are both great sites,” Schatz said, noting successful redevelopment projects surround those spots. “We are hoping we get some really good proposals.”
The city Redevelopment Authority’s vision for Block 7 includes mixed-use development in broad terms, Schatz said, ideally with green space and underground parking. The lot near the parking ramp, also known as the “liner site,” originally was envisioned as home to an office building, “but we are not locked into that at all,” Schatz said.
Given that those locations have gone undeveloped for several years, city officials are more willing to consider developers’ ideas for what could work there, he said.
“They have been sitting for a few years now, so anything that looks good and has a market for it, I think the RDA would be open to looking at it,” Schatz said.
This isn’t the first time the city has tried to spur development at those locations. The RDA began seeking builders’ proposals there in April 2015 and that body has rejected several projects.
Proposals that were turned down have included such plans as a public market, housing and commercial space. Each of those proposals sought TIF money, funding in which taxpayers foot the bill for infrastructure costs in an effort to make projects more attractive to developers.
Previous TIF requests for proposed buildings at Block 7 and the liner site were deemed too high, Schatz said. Future proposals can seek TIF dollars, he said, but the combined projects must meet the $12 million added valuation figure.
Commonweal Development Corp. of Eau Claire has presented two plans in the past for Block 7 that didn’t work out. Company President Stuart Schaefer said Commonweal might submit another proposal by the Sept. 28 deadline, but he acknowledged difficulties.
Unstable soil in many downtown locations make building there a challenge and costly, he said. That was an issue when the company built the Haymarket Landing building as part of the Confluence Project at the merger of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers that also includes Pablo Center at the Confluence, which is scheduled to open Sept. 22.
Recent increases in building costs add to construction challenges, Schaefer said. Many Eau Claire residents can’t afford more expensive housing options, he said, making constructing new housing risky.
“The environment right now is definitely challenging,” he said.
Schatz said he hopes successful downtown redevelopment will prompt further building at the two sites.
“The commercial part of development downtown has been tougher,” Schatz said, “but we can’t keep up with demand for housing.”