The city of La Crosse approved a compromise with Gundersen Health System on Thursday that would allow the demolition of nine homes for parking, but also require the hospital to replace the parking lot with improved development by 2021.
The La Crosse Common Council voted 12 to 3 with one absent to approve a conditional use permit, which would allow Gundersen to build a surface parking lot between Denton and Tyler, and Eighth and Ninth streets, provided its agrees to develop a five-year redevelopment plan and traffic management assessment, as well as provide a payment in lieu of taxes to the city.
Gundersen Health System executive director of external affairs Michael Richards said the hospital will need the 175 stalls of patient parking to replace those lost to hotel development on South Avenue and the lot that could be lost to medical resident housing during the second phase of that development, a total of 215 stalls.
“This replacement parking lot is not a long-term solution, and we continue to work with the city of La Crosse to find alternative solutions, such as a parking ramp,” Richards said.
The hospital has 3,631 parking stalls for 4,700 employees and 4,000 patient visits per day. The proposed lot will be entirely on Gundersen-owned property, within the Gundersen campus, and Gundersen needs city approval to purchase property outside that campus, according to a development agreement.
Andrew Londre, who lives nearby and co-chairs the Powell-Poage-Hamilton Neighborhood Association, opposed the project, which he said was a poor use of urban space and inconsistent with the Powell-Poage-Hamilton/Gundersen Health System Joint Neighborhood and Campus Plan.
“If you look, it very clearly recommended the block in question, that the east side of it be rezoned for a mixed-use type of facility and the other side be rezoned for new low-density housing,” Londre said.
Londre added that the medical resident housing project is not final and is proposed for an area zoned for mixed commercial use. He suggested that project be moved to the area.
Council member Martin Gaul said the compromise addresses Gundersen’s immediate needs, but also adds a sunset clause to ease the worries of Gundersen’s neighbors.
“I think Gundersen — whether you agree with them or not — has demonstrated that they have an immediate need for temporary parking,” Gaul said. “I believe that the neighborhood association is rightfully fearful of these houses being torn down and this block becoming surface parking.”
Gaul believes it was appropriate and important to have official assurances for the neighbors that their neighborhood will be maintained.
“Everyone can agree that surface parking is the worst possible use for it and nobody should believe for a second that surface parking is going to be the continued use for this property,” he said.
Gundersen will continue to look for other options, and is considering a parking ramp on the east side of South Avenue, Richards said. The health system is willing to commit to creating a redevelopment plan for the new lot by 2021.
“For a five year period of time, I think it’s a good opportunity for us to have a conversation,” Richards said.
Gundersen has been working to reduce employee parking, and finding and encouraging the use of alternatives. The health system invests in public transit, offers employee discounts to use the city’s Municipal Transit Utility and supports a walk-to-work program which covers the first year of property taxes for employees moving into the Powell-Poage-Hamilton Neighborhood.
“It’s good for everybody’s health and it’s good for, obviously, the parking congestion,” Richards said.
Council members Doug Happel, David Krump and Elaine Anderson voted against the project, saying they were unable to vote in favor of parking lots replacing housing, especially with the opposition within the neighborhood.
“At some point, if we just keep taking things away, it doesn’t stop, and we’ll have one great big parking lot and that just really isn’t the answer,” Happel said.
Londre was pleased to see the compromise put forth by Gaul put a requirement in to make the lot temporary, but nervous about the two plans to be developed with the city, neighborhood association and health system.
“There really was no definition of what those two plans should look like and what teeth they’re going to have,” Londre said.
However, he added that he “would be much more nervous about these conditions if it were anyone else.”