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Farnam Flats looks to convert first floor from commercial to additional apartments

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A recently opened apartment building in La Crosse’s Powell-Poage-Hamilton Neighborhood could get four additional units after efforts to fill commercial space on its first floor were unsuccessful.

The proposal from Farnam Flats crossed the desks of the City Plan Commission and Judiciary and Administration Committee on Tuesday, and both bodies approved the rezoning after some debate.

The 46-unit apartment complex opened early last year, and while its first floor was intended for commercial use, the owners stated they have not had anyone interested in opening up shop.

In a letter to the city, Farnam Flats officials said a commercial use would have been a bonus for the neighborhood and its tenants. “But to date there has been no interest in the space mostly due to the current economic climate created by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The new plans would construct four additional apartments on the building’s first floor, according to the plans.

The apartment complex is a project with the Joint Development Corporation (JDC), which is a partnership between Gundersen Health System and the city of La Crosse.

The development agreement for Farnam Flats required the JDC to market the first floor commercial space through the end of 2021 and then convert to residential if unsuccessful.

Officials saw the decision as a double-edged sword since new apartments would add much-needed housing to the area, but would squash an opportunity to add something such as a grocery store in the neighborhood, which is considered a food desert.

“I am personally very concerned,” said commissioner James Cherf. He said he was also concerned of what potential impact upcoming construction to South Avenue would have to other commercial spaces in the area.

James Cherf

Cherf

Cherf said, “I think this makes sense to a developer who wants to get rent churning out of these spaces, but does it really make sense for the neighborhood? I don’t think so.”

Council member Scott Neumeister said, “We called this.” He said when the council first approved the Farnam Flats project he and others doubted that developers could lease the commercial space because of the rent, which at the time was set at $20 per square foot, officials said.

“It seemed like the writing was on the wall back then,” Neumeister said.

Farnam Flats officials worked with two commercial brokers and the La Crosse Area Development Corporation to try and fill the space. The city said it also worked with the group to make sure grant opportunities were known.

Scott Neumeister mug

Scott Neumeister

Shawn McAlister of Premier Hotel Properties, which manages Farnam Flats, said through their brokers they were advised to lower rent to $18 per square foot. But the group was never able to negotiate any details with a potential tenant because no one ever inquired.

“We just had zero interest whatsoever,” McAlister said.

“Through all of that I do truly believe that they put their best effort in,” said city planner Andrea Trane.

Commissioner Elaine Yager echoed the difficulties COVID-19 has had on businesses, saying it has been challenging for new businesses, especially those related to food, to start up.

“While I understand everyone wanting to deny this, I also understand their side of it, that they’re trying to make it a useful space,” she said. “And I don’t know if they can do that in a commercial realm anytime soon.”

Andrea Trane

Andrea Trane

More housing itself was not a downside, and Mayor Mitch Reynolds said that the building has had no issue filling its apartments.

“It was full immediately,” he said, saying he expects the additional units to fill up quickly, too. “I think that should be an indication of the demand for housing in our community.”

Additionally, Reynolds said that there are ongoing discussions within the JDC to develop a market-style sandwich shop near South Avenue and Green Bay and 7th Streets, lending some relief to the food-scarce neighborhood.

Floor plans submitted to the city show that the four new Farnam Flats units would include one studio apartment, two one-bedroom units, and a two-bedroom, two-bath unit. The existing lobby, elevator, communal restrooms and community room space intends to remain untouched by the new design, the plans show.

Mitch Reynolds

Mitch Reynolds, La Crosse mayor

The plan would include both interior and exterior changes to the building. Deck railings would be added to the two existing outside-access doors that face Farnam Street and would connect to the two-bedroom and one of the single bedroom units. Paneling would be added to the bottom of what would have been floor-length storefront windows and additional windows will be added and doors removed elsewhere.

Five existing parking stalls that were intended to be used by employees of any potential commercial operations would then be used for the new residential units.

A vote to deny the Farnam Flats rezoning failed in the City Plan Commission. It passed later, with Cherf and commissioner Jacob Sciammas opposed. J&A passed it unanimously without discussion.

The rezoning now heads for the La Crosse Common Council next Thursday for a final vote.

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