La Crosse Common Council members voted to refer zoning of the former fish hatchery building at Riverside Park for 60 days as officials debate the possibility of a wedding venue at the site.
Under current plans the zoning would specifically pave way to include an Airbnb rental on the second floor of the building in addition to the overall venue, but after debate about land use and procedure, the zoning and what comes after it is on hold for now.
The city has tapped a proposal from The Hatchery LLC to repurpose the fish hatchery building into a wedding and event venue, which would include a beer garden and the rental space in question. The building is on numerous historic registrations and is roughly 100 years old, calling for expensive repairs and upkeep, prompting the city to find investors from the private sector.
The proposal has received pushback though, largely from residents who live in a nearby apartment complex, and concerns have been widely scattered, ranging from increased noise to alcohol in the park to limiting public use of the building which resides in the city’s most popular park.
The zoning legislation that was referred Thursday is only one small, early piece to the project, though, and the venue would still need to go through several more hoops before it would be a reality — though rezoning the site may be critical for most other sustainable uses, staff said.
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Many council members wanted to pump the brakes on the project in order to gain more feedback and support from the public before moving forward, and others were concerned that there wasn’t adequate engagement in the first place. Others disagreed that the wedding venue was the right redevelopment at all.
“I know it’s about zoning but it’s also about treating everyone equally. I don’t believe we have done that. I had to dig and dig and dig, and ask and ask and ask for the city to give me the information for how this all started,” said council member Andrea Richmond, who has been a vocal opponent to the project and made the referral suggestion.
“I think we should turn this whole thing down and start over,” she said.
“I know this is on zoning and not use but I think that there is a lot of confusion amongst the community and that doesn’t help us build community buy-in. And I think whoever ends up occupying this building deserves to have a good start,” said council member Mackenzie Mindel.
Officials have been making attempts in recent days and weeks to clarify the project’s intent.
Staff confirmed Thursday that the Airbnb would likely be required to pay room tax to the city either by new financial law or as required through a city development agreement.
La Crosse Parks, Recreation & Forestry Department director Jay Odegaard fielded questions from officials at the meeting, emphasizing that a referral would pause the process of getting a developer on contract, and that the goal of the project is to preserve a city historic building, add to the growing Riverside Park and relieve some financial burden from the city.
Odegaard also said that denying the zoning at hand sets an unclear precedent as the department would look for new developers.
“This creates a real concern for us and our public outreach when we don’t know if the zoning is being denied because of concerns over noise or a beer garden or an event venue or whatever it might be. How does that translate” for possible other proposals, he said.
Several council members made procedural arguments like Odegaard’s, saying that the vote before them was only on the zoning and not yet on whether they liked the overall project or not. A common debate amongst the council, others argued that approving the zoning was essentially giving approval for the rest.
Lisa Moe, an official with RiverPlace Apartments, told officials her group was in favor a referral in order to better understand the potential business model and to possibly be added to the lease — a notion that council member Scott Neumeister staunchly opposed.
“I don’t agree with how they should dictate how leases should be done,” he said.
Amid the many, wide-ranging concerns between council members and the public the Common Council voted 8-4 for the referral.
“This is one of those things that a soundbite kind-of gets in the way of what might be good for the city, and the soundbite is ‘beer garden.’ And I’m not so sure that we’ve never had beer down in Riverside Park,” said council member Doug Happel, emphasizing the importance of getting the full picture out to the public. He said a referral was the right decision if it helped the city “get it right.”
City staff have now been charged with digging into parking details, the zoning impact to Riverside Park and holding more public meetings during the two-month window before it is brought back to the city.
If the zoning would happen to be denied when it returns, it could not come before the city for another year.
If it were approved, Odegaard said the process to then approve the overall venue project would go to a public hearing before the Board of Park Commissioners, back to them for a vote, then on to the city Finance & Personnel Committee and finally to the La Crosse Common Council for its final approval.
He said that it’s the department’s goal to have the site be in use by next summer.
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