EAU CLAIRE — The Eau Claire Redevelopment Authority began talks Wednesday about spots to focus its future efforts.
Much of the land in the RDA’s existing areas already has new buildings on it or developers committed to building there, which leaves the group looking for other parts of Eau Claire that need revamping.
To get that discussion started, Aaron White, the city’s economic development manager, brought maps of two areas for the RDA to ponder.
One of those would be a small expansion to the east of the North Barstow Street area the city has been redeveloping for about 20 years. That new area White brought forth is a block and a half that straddles Wisconsin Street.
The land is already home to several businesses and offices, but it also has a few buildings and lots not in active use.
Gift shop Raggedy Man, sandwich shop Jimmy John’s and restaurant Thai Orchid are among the businesses currently located there. Offices used by Western Dairyland, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwestern Wisconsin and Apex Dental Lab of Eau Claire are also there.
But White noted other buildings in that area are empty.
“There are buildings that are not being used,” he said.
And there are several parcels there that are worn asphalt and even pea gravel that is seldom used for parking.
The second area White introduced as a potential area to redevelop lies north of East Madison Street where a mix of housing and businesses are located, but also numerous dilapidated buildings.
The irregular wedge-shaped area would be bordered by Forest Street on the west, railroad tracks to the east and ending on the north side of Huyssen Street. (A row of active businesses along East Madison Street including Stella Blues restaurant, Wigwam Tavern and Barstow Auto Service were not included in the map for potential redevelopment.)
There are some newer and well-kept buildings in those blocks, but White said others have fallen into deep disrepair.
“We know that some of the buildings there are in such rough shape that they need a bulldozer,” he said.
An example he gave is the buildings at 728 N. Barstow St., remnants of the former Walter’s Brewery. White acknowledged that a developer had previously pitched an idea to reuse the buildings, but that project has not moved forward.
Suggesting to redevelop an area where there’s currently a mix of rental and owner-occupied housing was met with trepidation from RDA members.
“It is touchy because it is housing,” Jenny Fesenmaier said.
While the area does have drawbacks such as very small lots — some houses were built within inches of each other — she said rents there are largely seen as affordable.
“A lot of people live there,” said Emily Berge, who also serves as a city councilwoman. She noted that prior redevelopment efforts have been in areas that had primarily been in blighted business areas.
White noted that the RDA has bought older rental housing in the past for redevelopment, including some used to pull together land for the Cannery District. In those cases, landlords are paid for their property and their tenants are provided with assistance to relocate to similar housing.
Wayne Wille, another RDA member, said that just because a large area is outlined for redevelopment does not mean every building within it will be targeted.
The RDA would look to buildings that are in poor condition, pose fire hazard risks or have other problems, he said.
White agreed that a very specific approach would be likely if the RDA would opt to put its efforts into an area where there is housing.
“It’s not going in and taking everything. It’s going in and making improvements where it’s needed so the neighborhood could improve itself organically,” he said. “You’ll see whole neighborhoods transformed by removing one or two key blighted properties.”
City Attorney Stephen Nick voiced apprehension with the idea of redeveloping in a neighborhood.
Before doing that, he said the city should get an accurate measure of how much of that area is rental housing versus owner-occupied. If a spot is over 50% owner-occupied, Nick said the RDA should avoid it.
The RDA made no decision Wednesday morning on future areas to redevelop, as it was the group’s first discussion of the topic.
In addition to the two areas that White brought to the meeting to discuss, he said city staff will come up with other suggestions and he’s soliciting ideas from individual RDA members, too.
Whenever the RDA does choose its next area to focus on, it will also need approval from the City Council.
“There are a number of steps that have to be gone through,” White said.
Also during Wednesday morning’s Redevelopment Authority meeting:
• Local company Ambient Inks, 524 Water St., is moving forward with plans to create its new building on about 4,500 square feet of land in the Cannery District. The RDA Board voted unanimously in favor of a 90-day memorandum of understanding, which gives Ambient Inks time to thoroughly examine the site and work toward an agreement to buy and develop the land.
• A Minneapolis developer planning apartments for people 55 and older in the Cannery District is getting three more months to crunch numbers for the project and assess demand in the Eau Claire housing market.
“What they are doing is reconfirming their market,” White said.
The RDA Board unanimously granted a 90-day extension to the memorandum of understanding it has with developer Silver Creek Equity for the proposed apartment building site, which is near the High Bridge.