For the birds

(First published in the December 13, 2018 issue of City Pages)

As Wausau looks to finish Parkway 52, some are wary of repeating the “rusty birds” brouhaha


Birds at the median on Highway 52/Stewart Avenue corridor

Wausau officials are about to reconsider the second phase of a high-profile road project that ruffled a few feathers the first time around — something they’re eager not to repeat.

The City’s Capital Improvements and Streets Maintenance Committee on Thursday will consider the first steps of the second phase of the Parkway 52 project; the first phase of which became known as “the rusty birds.”

The original project was one of the city’s first attempt at really focusing on aesthetic improvement rather than just form, Council President Lisa Rasmussen told City Pages. While the project had good intentions — make this gateway into town look a little more memorable and less of a boring concrete jungle — the execution and staffing situation at the time led to less than favorable results, something Rasmussen says she and other council members will be sure to avoid this time around.

The plan back in 2014 was to decorate the Highway 52/Stewart Avenue Corridor with sculptures in the median paying homage to the city’s Bird City status and to the annual Birds in Art exhibit. Instead, the $25,000 project ended up costing more than four times that amount, the lighting that looked so nice in an early presentation was washed out by the powerful streetlights, and the grass chosen ended up growing tall enough to become a traffic hazard. And because of how it was placed, the medians can only be mowed by hand, making it extremely labor intensive.

Although in a lot of ways it was a disaster, the road sculptures were really one of the city’s first effort toward placemaking — a marketing term for projects that, besides just being functional, enhance a community’s image as somewhere people would want to live. That can be seen in projects like RiverLife Park, The 400 Block’s development, or many of the Wausau River District’s events.

The city will seek proposals for the second phase with that in mind. Rasmussen says one thing she hopes to see differently this time: more than one design to choose from. Last time only one company was considered for the project. This time there will be a request for proposals, and if only one company responds, Rasmussen hopes to see more than one design from that bidder. And city leaders this time need to think more critically about the practicality and logistics of those designs, Rasmussen says.

The city hopes to collect proposals by January, and finalize the planning process by May. Community Development Director Christian Schock says the proposals will come before the city’s Capital Improvement and Streets Maintenance Committee, and CISM chair Gary Gisselman asked that it come before Economic Development as well.

This time everyone hopes to avoid the mistakes of last time, mainly through experience. But at least placemaking is no longer a new concept in Wausau.