More people, please

(First published in the June 20, 2019 issue of City Pages)

A slew of consultants say Wausau has a glaring weak spot: Not enough people living in downtown.


Andrew Dane of Neighborhood Planners and Eric Ponto of Engberg Anderson Architects are two of the consultants recommending more living spaces in downtown.

What makes a vibrant city? Great retail stores? Awesome and inspiring events? Or those smaller events you come across and are delighted by? Green space, parks, an arts scene, or live music?

All those things help, for sure, and should be included in any plan to create a strong core, especially in a city’s downtown.

But it’s not the most important element, experts in urban planning say. There’s only one thing that actually creates a vibrant, 24-hour downtown, as the lingo goes. It’s people.

In a truly vibrant downtown, about 10% to 15% of its space is dedicated to residential living. Right now in Wausau, that number sits at around 3%. Meaning, there should be at least three times as many people living in downtown, and as much as five times that amount.

The current situation could change soon, though, with a pair of development studies happening this year: One is called the Towers study, which includes the two-thirds of downtown west of Third Street; the other, the south riverfront area study, is looking along River Drive (between downtown and Oak Island Park). Both are advising city leaders to encourage residential space in to make development in those areas work for the city as a whole.

Along those lines, things already are in the works. A new proposal from Merge Urban Development Group would create a five-story apartment complex on Scott Street, in what’s now a parking lot and where Scott Street Steak and Pub and other businesses once stood on that busy corridor.

Plans to create residential units atop the building where HT Cobblery has been winding down its business on the corner of Third and Jefferson (right next to the 400 Block square) is teetering on the brink. The apartments would cost at least a million to get off the ground, counting the $650,000 Compass Properties already paid for the building, says Compass Property Manager Mark Craig.

Want to know why so much seems to be cropping up in Weston? Because that’s where the population growth is.

Wausau’s population (that is, within city limits) has hardly increased in nearly three decades. Its population in 1990 was 37,376 and stands at just over 39,000 now—a 4% increase over 29 years.

In contrast, the village of Weston’s population has grown from 9,471 in 1990 to 15,400 now—a 63% increase over 29 years.

People drive business


Consultants hired by the city didn’t pull punches on two of the city’s parking ramps. Jefferson Street’s (shown here) ramps are too steep, uncomfortable to drive into with too many entrances and exits.

On Saturday morning, the sun shined down upon the vendors and shoppers at the Wausau Farmers Market on River Drive. Inside a tented booth, consultants talked to crowds of people about long-range plans for that area.

Farmers markets are one of the best ways to gather public input, says one of the consultants there, Andy Dane, of Neighborhood Planners in Appleton. If you hold a public meeting at 5 pm on a Tuesday, you likely get the same four to five people who typically attend public meetings. Farmers markets attract a good cross section of people, Dane says, and allows consultants like him them to collect ideas from the populace.

Also there taking feedback on the future of downtown Wausau was Eric Ponto of Engberg Anderson Architects, and Garrett Perry of Design Studio Etc. They all greet people amongst signs with plans for the riverfront south area, which include a potentially updated farmers market. The booth was almost never without a crowd of people viewing the plans and asking questions.

They’ve already identified a few key elements in the river south: A farmers market with more permanent infrastructure—like a covered pavilion—as some Wisconsin cities have; more formalized camping near the river behind the farmers market (mainly for paddler competing on or using the whitewater rapids); and even expanding the newly opened Whitewater Music Hall, set to have its first show later this month.

Meanwhile, also in the works is a coworking space in the stately, historic brick building, on the river just off the Washington Street train depot, owned by WPS. A team of students have designed what the space could look like, says Dave Eckmann, president of the Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce, who’s leading the charge to find a new use for the long-vacant structure. The Greater Wausau Prosperity Partnership, the group formed out of the Chamber’s Economic Development Strategic Plan, is charging ahead on the project. Inside the space will be a wide-open area, a coffee bar and plenty of smaller offices. A final plan by an architect will be submitted to WPS in September, Eckmann says, and once approved construction on the space can begin.

     Why is all that important? A vibrant downtown, which can lead to a vibrant city in general, is crucially dependent on residents living downtown. This urban lifestyle appeals now to both Millennials starting out their careers, and empty nesters, those of the Baby Boomer generation looking to downsize now that their children are grown. Eckmann himself is one of them — he plans to move from Rothschild to downtown so he can live within walking distance of work and other city amenities.

Right now, he will be one of the few, though, because there’s simply not a lot of housing options downtown. Only about 3% of real estate in Wausau’s downtown core is devoted to residential, but experts say that ratio ideally is closer to 10-15%. Or put another way, there should be about 2,800 more residents in Wausau’s downtown.

And that would go a long way toward bumping up Wausau’s long-stagnant population growth problem. A large part of that is simply due to geography. A lot of areas within and adjacent to city boundaries are hilly, rocky and generally difficult to build on. Weston and Kronenwetter, for example, are flat with plenty of space for housing expansion.

So one of the best solutions for Wausau population growth is to in-fill where there’s already infrastructure and amenities.

And greater numbers of people living downtown drive business to downtown—and different kinds. People need basic goods, like toothpaste and paper towels, and are more likely to buy them in places nearby.

That last bit comes from Perry, who says newer residential buildings being constructed in downtowns are demanding smaller parking space allocation. That’s because so many people today are choosing to not own cars. They use bicycles, walk or take Uber or other ride services to get where they need to go.

In a scenario with more downtown residents, Wausau would put a greater emphasis on designing streets that accommodate foot and bicycle traffic. Plans already are in the works for a modified street design of the downtown area, which includes transforming one-way streets into two-ways and building around multi-modal transportation.

Redesigning downtown with smarter parking will be crucial as Compass Properties eyes its own downtown housing project next to the square, in the HT Cobblery building. Mark Craig says the demand is there — apartments tend to change hands on what is almost like a black market, and rarely see a listing, because demand is so high. People who want to live downtown often come away disappointed because there just aren’t too many options. Compass is eager to build the project but it will require assistance from the city, Craig says. So far, Craig says, it has not gotten much traction at city hall.

On Scott Street, for a five-story structure, Merge Urban Development Group is taking out a planning option on the property, which means they have exclusive rights to evaluate it for redevelopment. The organization currently is set to break ground on a new downtown development in Stevens Point, North Side Yard, which will include 211 apartment units and nearly 30,000 feet of commercial and retail space. Units are supposed to become available in 2021, according to the organization’s website.

Brent Dahlstrom of Merge told city leaders last week that one of the core elements of their projects is to think about pedestrians and people on bicycles first, with car access a distant third.

Building a modern city


The McClellan Street ramp is close to the end of its lifecycle, but opens up opportunities for improved parking structures that combine other uses like commercial or residential.

Sure, younger generations of future downtown Wausau residents might not own cars, but Wausau is unlikely any time soon to go the way of cities such as Oslo, Norway, which completely eliminated on street car parking from its downtown. And those cars will need somewhere to park.

Parking and perception of parking are two different things in downtown. The perception is that there isn’t enough parking in downtown. The reality is, there is plenty, it’s just not readily apparent, says Tyler Vogt, owner of Malarkey’s, Townies and The Ugly Mug downtown. Vogt did a count and found just under 4,000 parking spots in downtown; but it’s confusing and in the past there seemed to be new rules for every new area you were in.

But parking presents a couple of problems. One, while the parking exists, it’s not always easy to find. And second, our parking ramps… well, they kind of suck.

Why do they suck? All of them are too tall. When consultants recently reviewed the parking ramps in the downtown area, they found that people rarely parked above the third or fourth floor. That means they’re overbuilt and people just aren’t fully using them. Second, the design isn’t great.

The Jefferson Street ramp, for instance, “looks like an architect laid it out,” says Eric Ponto, himself an architect with Engberg Anderson Architects, one of the consultants recommending more living spaces in downtown. The ramps are far too steep, they’re unpleasant to enter, and the entrances are far more complex than they need to be, Ponto says. A pedestrian walking by the Jefferson ramp has to cross 14 curbs, and is directed into blind spots, a problem for both pedestrians and drivers. “It’s not a comfortable experience to drive in with a vehicle,” Ponto says.

New designs for parking structures look a lot different, and could benefit Wausau, Ponto says. The trend now is for smaller structures that double as commercial or mixed-use buildings, and from the outside might not even appear to be parking structures. They tend to blend in better.

That might be something the city could consider soon. The McClellan Street ramp — connected to the City Square complex (BMO Harris Bank and Nationwide Insurance)— was built in 1976 and is close to the end of its lifecycle. It will have to come down soon, and the city has yet to decide what to put in its place.

Wausau Community Development Director Chris Schock says the consultants’ findings are in line with the city’s strategies for improving and adding housing in the downtown area in general.

     Scores of residential unit already have been, or soon will be, added to downtown: the in-progress Riverlife complex, the Sav-o Supply building’s conversion into housing, and the rowhouses on Third Street built by Blenker Construction. Schock points out that redevelopment plans for Wausau Center Mall include the potential for residential units on site. Those plans of course rely on the mall’s owners, who so far aren’t indicating what their plans are for the building, if they have any.

The consultants will come back with a final version of their plans for both the towers area and the south riverfront area after they incorporate input from stakeholders and residents. But maybe by then, work will already be underway on adding some more housing to the downtown.