In May 2014, La Crosse had an intensive, week-long public planning exercise for the former Mobil Oil and Patros properties just north of the La Crosse River.
This “charrette” was intended to yield a master plan for the city-owned 65-acre site between Copeland Avenue and the Mississippi River, considered one of the last significant tracts of undeveloped land left within city limits.
In that, the session was a success: La Crosse has a detailed vision for what is possible on what now is referred to as Riverside North.
Yet 18 months later, little development has begun on Riverside North, even as new hotels and buildings spring up nearby in downtown La Crosse.
Getting the site ready for construction has proven more costly and complicated than anticipated.
And without an access road, utilities and other infrastructure, the 35 acres of usable land on Riverside North remains in a holding pattern, with developers wary of taking the plunge.
It could be years before anything goes up on Riverside North. Or, depending on interest, it could move forward sooner but at a more modest pace.
Reality is it will cost millions for soil fill to raise the property out of the floodplain.
And the city doesn’t foresee having that money anytime soon.
So the grand plans have to be modified to something more realistic.
“It’s a really big project,” said Amy Peterson, city planning and economic development administrator, “and it’s going to take time.”
The city and its Redevelopment Authority worked over decades to assemble the Riverside North property, finally acquiring the 12-acre former Patros Steel site in 2010 for $1.9 million, adding it to the 26-acre Mobil Oil tank farm, 8.3-acre Western Wisconsin Ready-Mix plant and 15 acres of city-owned wetlands.
Contaminated soil at the site had to be cleaned up before any development could begin. But the 2014 charrette seemed to signal the project was poised to start, with a consultant projecting $90 million of mixed residential, retail, commercial and recreational development might be possible.
Yet an attempt to market Riverside North in July 2014 fizzled despite the city contacting about 50 prospective developers for proposals. City officials wanted to see how much interest was there in the wake of the charrette but hadn’t anticipated the dampening effect of not having a shovel-ready site.
So they’ll concentrate on putting some of that infrastructure in place, said city Planner Jason Gilman, who was hired in June, a year after the charrette.
“Provide the funds,” said Mayor Tim Kabat, who had Peterson’s position in the planning department from 2003 to 2010, “to try to tackle various pieces of the puzzle there … I think I’m just as anxious as anybody on when are we going to get some development out there.”
The only hitch: Finding the money to make that happen.
While each annual capital improvement budget usually has something for Riverside North, it’s only a fraction of the estimated $2.4 million needed for fill alone. The city usually aims for only about $7 million to $8 million annually in new borrowing for capital improvements, so can’t afford to give that large a share to one project, Gilman said.
“The money just hasn’t been there,” Gilman said.
Phasing it in
The best approach now might be developing Riverside North in phases, filling each section in as they go along, Gilman said. That would add tax base that could then be used to promote further growth.
The most promising starting place is right along Copeland Avenue, which has drawn the most interest, Peterson said.
The 2016 capital improvement budget includes $300,000 for an entrance to Riverside North, connecting to the existing signaled intersection into Three Rivers Plaza. The city already has secured a $750,000 state loan to acquire property for the access road at 11 Copeland Ave., now owned by JRD Ltd.
The 2006-built Three Rivers Plaza project offers a glimpse of both the potential and challenges to building in that area, Peterson said. The Three Rivers complex boasts $20 million to $25 million in retail, office space and condominium housing, but the site had to be built up before construction began.
Some fill from Department of Transportation projects had gone into Riverside North to start the process, but the city had to focus on getting the former Trane Plant 6 property at George and St. Andrews streets ready instead after it was sold for $1.9 million in 2014 to Stizo Development, Peterson said. In setting up Tax Incremental District 15, the city committed to raising much of the 12-acre property by several feet to get it above the 100-year flood level.
The Riverside North property is within Tax Incremental District 12, so the city could offer payback on some of the development costs over the years using the additional tax revenue, or increment, generated by the new property value created, Gilman said.
That could be enough to encourage a developer to step forward on Riverside North and get the ball rolling, Gilman said.
“So we don’t just wait for the capital improvement budget each year,” Gilman said. “We have to be opportunistic.”
He stressed this does not mean giving up the master plan that emerged from the charrette 18 months ago.
“Phased doesn’t mean piecemeal,” Gilman said. “Development still can occur around a strong, common concept.”