La Crosse Center model

The model of the $42 million La Crosse Center project, seen here, shows roughly the size of the expansion with a large ballroom that will jut out over Riverside Park. While it’s shown in white, the materials for the building have yet to be determined.

Downtown La Crosse business owners and residents Thursday urged the city and its architecture firms to keep access to the Mississippi River near Pearl Street in mind as they move forward with designs for the $42 million renovation of the La Crosse Center.

Terry Peterslie, owner of The Pearl ice cream parlor and Cheddarheads, joined several of his neighboring business owners and residents in calling for the city to respect La Crosse’s origins as a river city at a public input meeting Thursday evening.

“This has been a historic connection to downtown from the beginning of La Crosse,” Peterslie said. “We live on a world-class river. To do anything to diminish the size or the scope of the entranceway into that river is disregarding the past and making a short-sighted decision for the future.”

The city has hired Gensler and ISG to design the sizable project, which proponents say will increase programming at the community center and be an economic boon to downtown.

While Gensler hasn’t yet began schematics and design, architects Eric Stultz and Russell Gilchrist provided basic models of what the design will look like with regards to ballroom size and location, as well as other meeting rooms and hallways.

“The primary money-generator for this whole thing is really a ballroom of significant size that will really generate the revenue that we’re looking for,” Gilchrist said, “and with this comes all the meeting rooms and support space, and a lobby on Second Street that actually supports that.”

The architects showed two models, both of which put the ballroom up in the air on the second story. The first put a 12,000-square-foot ballroom on the north end, with some overlap over the walkway connecting Pearl Street to Riverside Park. The second put a 14,000-square-foot ballroom on the back end of the building, overlapping Front Street and Riverside Park.

“We’re trying to balance, trying to stay within our property lines, potentially going outside our property lines in some cases ... trying to make sure the program we put into this is going to have the longest, best impact to the success of the facility and the success for the economy of La Crosse,” Gensler’s Eric Stultz said.

That includes taking full advantage of the Mississippi River view by way of a glass wall in the ballroom — which would be able to be divided into three rooms with equally breathtaking views of the river — and another main entrance off of Riverside Park, which would allow easy access to the new ballroom from the park.

“At the moment we have this amazing facility, and this major asset — which is the view of the river — is enjoyed by the loading dock,” Gilchrist said. “We’re just trying to turn that around and try to activate this whole western edge.”

The downtown neighborhood favored the second model, with several people speaking against any design that would obstruct the view of the park from the intersection of Pearl and Second streets — particular one that would require people to walk under the addition, rather than open sky, to get to the river.

Brent Martinson, a co-owner of Turtlestack Brewery on Second Street, said the design would be a “psychic block” for tourists because they wouldn’t be able to see the river and Riverside Park from Pearl Street.

“When you come down Pearl Street and you get that view of the river as you come down the walkway, that’s a phenomenal thing that would be lost,” Martinson said. “A tunnel is not something people want to be walking down at night a lot of times.”

La Crosse City Planner Jason Gilman also spoke in favor of incorporating a design to keep the Pearl Street connection open, saying it’s a draw for people who enjoy the walkability of downtown and that it’s not in the city’s best interest to create a visual block there.

“Pearl Street becomes a very, very important connection into the town center and one of our greatest assets,” Gilman said. “Pearl Street has been there and will always be there, and it’s important to have that connection.”

The plans for the renovation include upgrades to the walkway intended to make it more inviting to pedestrians.

The size of the renovation has yet to be set. While there are proposed sizes associated with the models, those could change as the design phase goes forward. Gensler will do an economic impact study to determine which size of the renovation will generate a larger return on investment for the city.

“If it turns out that we would make more money and pay the debt back faster with the larger one, we should know that. If the smaller one turns out to be more cost-effective, we should know that too,” said La Crosse Center Board member Phil Addis.

The study is expected to take 4 to 6 weeks and will be included in the current contract with the company.

Stultz and Gilchrist stressed that the images provided, which use white to demonstrate the new addition, are preliminary diagrams and don’t reflect the materials or the look of the finished building.

“We can almost rebrand the building through the architecture, to try to give it a new look and feel in terms of how we move forward for the next 30-some years,” Gilchrist said.

The La Crosse Center also hopes to include a branding proposal in the project. Whether that will be included in the current project or be put out for bids remains to be seen.

La Crosse’s Common Council approved $35 million in bonding for the project last year and the state of Wisconsin agreed to chip in $5 million. The La Crosse Center revenues and city of La Crosse capital improvements budget will provide an additional $2 million.

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Jourdan Vian is a reporter and columnist covering local government and city issues for the La Crosse Tribune. You can contact her at 608-791-8218.

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