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UPDATE: La Crosse Common Council approves rezoning for Riverside hatchery building

From the COLLECTION: Debating converting fish hatchery into wedding venue and more series
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All eyes on hatchery rezoning

A packed house at Thursday's La Crosse Common Council meeting, where officials voted to approve the controversial rezoning for the Riverside Park fish hatchery building. The zoning opens the door for a proposal to redevelop the site into a wedding venue and Airbnb.

A historic building in Riverside Park is one step closer to getting new life after the La Crosse Common Council approved its rezoning Thursday night, which was tied to potential plans to convert the building into an event venue and rental.

The project has been hotly debated in the community, and it has received pushback from community members and neighbors who reside in a nearby apartment building.

Andrea Richmond mug

Richmond

Dozens of members of the public were in attendance at the South Side Neighborhood Center — where there was standing room only — to witness the Common Council make its decision on the issue after weeks of back and forth.

It was approved on a vote of 12-1, with council member Andrea Richmond the only opposing member.

This rezoning paves the way for The Hatchery LLC to convert the building, a former fish hatchery that was built in the early 1900s. The group has plans to convert the building into a wedding and event venue with an outdoor beer garden and space for community vendors.

Event venue zoning

Fencing surrounds the fish hatchery building Wednesday in Riverside Park. The La Crosse City Council voted Thursday on the zoning changes required to turn the historic building into an event venue.

The rezoning was mostly needed for the redevelopment of the second floor of the building, which because of historical standards is limited in what it can become. The Hatchery developers have proposed turning the second floor into a one-unit rental space, or Airbnb, one of the more controversial components of its plans.

Pushback on the project has varied from concerns over noise and impacts the venue would have to the park, with others questioning whether the city acted unethically while working with the developers.

Barb Janssen

Some council members echoed those concerns Thursday, and many clarified that their approval of the rezoning was not the same as their approval of the project overall.

“I did want to make it very clear that I’m voting in favor of the zoning change and most of the discussion has been what would happen to that property in the future,” said council president Barb Janssen. “I’m not in favor of, necessarily, the plans moving forward, but I am open and in favor of supporting the zoning change.”

Leading up to Thursday’s vote, residents and some officials questioned communications between the city and the The Hatchery as well as the process for requesting proposals from potential developers.

Event venue zoning

The ornate doorway of the fish hatchery building in Riverside Park reads “Bureau of Fisheries.”

Documents that were shared with officials and reviewed by the Tribune show that the developers met city officials to discuss the building this past spring when officials were collecting proposals. The documents indicate both parties were on the same page, and one document states that prospective tenants had already put some money into building materials before the zoning was approved, but no agreement with the city and The Hatchery appeared to be made pre-emptively.

Mark Neumann

Neumann

The city clerk also confirmed with the Tribune that the city was not required to publish its requests for proposals in the paper.

Council member Mark Neumann said that the city’s process in seeking out developers for the building was “clumsy,” but not “nefarious.” He said he hoped the process could be improved but that he was in support of the doors a rezoning would open for the site.

Still, some remained in staunch opposition.

“We hear this all the time: That cart is in front,” Richmond said. “And what we have done here is we as a city have not done the best job.

“It bothers me a lot that all of these negotiations have gone on and gone on for many months here and made changes to the lease when we haven’t even approved the zoning,” Richmond said. “How about doing it differently next time?”

Richmond said she would not support the move, saying “it’s totally wrong,” and also said that the Airbnb component of the project was “another mistake,” to which some members of the public applauded.

Developers will still need to go through another approval process for its designs and redevelopers, and the Common Council would need to approve a lease with the developers before it became a reality — a contract that several officials signaled they weren’t yet ready to support — but the zoning was among the largest hurdles for the project.

“This is not a done deal as far as what happens with the fish hatchery building. This is just providing more options, in my opinion,” Janssen said.

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