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Razor-thin vote moves Riverside wedding venue zoning on to La Crosse City Council

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Riverside Park fish hatchery building

The former U.S. Fish Control Lab at 410 E Veterans Memorial Drive, and previous home to Explore La Crosse and the La Crosse County Historical Society museum.

The zoning that would help pave way for a new wedding venue and Airbnb in the former fish hatchery building on Riverside Park will head for a final vote from the La Crosse Common Council next week.

Officials of the Judiciary & Administration Committee narrowly voted 4-3 in favor of the zoning Tuesday night as they begin to weigh whether the redevelopment is the best fit for the site or not.

The current legislation would only change the zoning for the parcel, which is located on the north end of Riverside Park near the International Friendship Gardens. The development agreement and lease would still need additional approval from the council before the wedding venue would become a reality.

Riverside wedding venue and beer garden

An architectural rendering shows tentative plans to convert the parking lot near the former fish hatchery building on the north end of Riverside Park into a beer garden. The space would accompany a wedding and event venue and possible Airbnb rental in the two buildings on the site.

Riverside wedding venue and beer garden

The city is weighing a proposal to develop the former fish hatchery building in Riverside Park into a wedding and event center, with a possible Airbnb rental attached. The building most recently was home of the La Crosse County Historical Society and Explore La Crosse, but has been vacated as the city has been eyeing the site for a revenue-producing project.

Still, officials have been wary to approve the zoning, unsure about the project at large. Neighbors of the nearby RiverPlace Apartments have been vocal in opposition to the plans, worried a wedding venue will bring in noise, parking concerns and more.

The La Crosse Parks, Recreation & Forestry Department sought out proposals for possible new uses of the historic building, which was built in 1924, and tapped the wedding venue idea proposed by Hatchery, LLC.

The plan calls to convert the main building into an event venue, and the detached garage and parking lot into a beer garden that could be used for receptions and ceremonies.

The second floor of the building would also be converted into an Airbnb, a point of contention for officials and neighbors alike as the zoning at hand would largely allow for that piece of the development.

Scott Neumeister mug

Scott Neumeister

"I understand why they want to put an apartment up above there, an Airbnb, because they have to offset the cost of having a facility that won't be running full time. So I do understand that," said council member Scott Neumeister, but noting that he remembered the pushback officials received for developing the RiverPlace Apartments in the 90s.

"So what comes around goes around, I guess," he said.

Council member Mackenzie Mindel said, "I also am struggling with this one. I recognize that this could potentially be good for tourism and our local economy, and I appreciate the effort to restore a historic landmark. I do understand the concerns of the neighbors.

"I do also struggle a bit with the ways that Airbnbs impact our ideals around planning and land-use regulations. I think it would be different for me if these were actually housing units instead of Airbnb units or unit. And I'm not sure that I feel comfortable voting in favor for this for that and other reasons," Mindel said.

Riverside wedding venue and beer garden

This architectural rendering shows the possibilities of redeveloping the existing building at the north end of Riverside Park into a wedding and event center.

Riverside wedding venue and beer garden

The city of La Crosse is eyeing a wedding and event center at the former fish hatchery building in Riverside Park. The venue would include a beer garden and possible Airbnb rental, as well, and would make use of the existing buildings and parking lot that are nestled between the Friendship Gardens and Veterans Memorial Drive.

Both Neumeister and Mindel voted against the rezoning Tuesday, but emphasized that their votes could change before the council vote next week.

Parks director Jay Odegaard told the committee that he was "confident" that the rental would not be a "traditional Airbnb," restating that it will likely be mostly catered to bridal parties or guests who are at the venue for an event.

"I can't think of a warmer welcome to La Crosse or a more extreme way to start a visitor's day than waking up overlooking Riverside Park," said Tiffany Smith with Hatchery. She said the second floor of the building was previously used as a residential space and that their group had other Airbnbs in the area and were "superhosts," a title that well-loved hosts earn through good reviews.

Mackenzie Mindel

Candidate for La Crosse Common Council District 8, Mackenzie Mindel.

The current zoning of the building, which most recently housed the La Crosse County Historical Society museum and offices for Explore La Crosse, would not allow for an overnight rental space and would only allow government offices that would require the building to have an elevator, something that could compromise the historic features of the structure.

Other officials issued new concern about the process of public engagement for the development, arguing that neighbors were not included in early conversations enough, and some residents concerned that the emphasis on making money was compromising other values.

"I'm not going to stand up her and deny, money has a big part to play in this," said Odegaard. But he said the city was not "trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes," detailing that it was also about getting help in preserving the historic building and adding to the qualities Riverside Park already had.

In regards to public engagement, the parks department posted two requests for proposals, or RFPs, and fielded some interest but ultimately only received two official proposals by deadline.

Odegaard also emphasized that the conversations are not done regarding the project, as it will go before both the Board of Park Commissioners and La Crosse Common Council at least once more for approval of the broader plan, and said his department is willing to set up additional meetings with neighbors.

He said he "feels very strongly" about the proposal, which would allow the city to outsource nearly half a million dollars worth of capital improvements to the landmark building.

"We have so many awesome things going on in Riverside Park," Odegaard said. "We all know just how important Riverside Park is and that's why we want to look at how we can manage and maintain what we have and improve it. ... At the end of the day this was the best proposal that came before us."

Jay Odegaard

Parks director Jay Odegaard

Neumeister and Mindel were joined by council member Andrea Richmond in opposing the legislation Tuesday. Council members Chris Kahlow (who represents the district of Riverside Park), Chris Woodward, Justice Weaver and Jennifer Trost voted in favor. Though not a voting member Tuesday, council president Barb Janssen indicated she was opposed to the legislation.

The zoning legislation will get a vote from the La Crosse Common Council on Thursday, Aug. 12.

The Way it Was: 1952 flood

This photo is an aerial view from April 1952 showing floodwaters creeping into the west side of Riverside Park. The large building in the foreground was then home to a federal fish hatchery but is now occupied by the La Crosse County Convention and Visitors Bureau. The 1952 flood crested here at 15.3 feet on April 20, well below La Crosse’s all-time record flood crest of 17.9 feet in April 1965. Anyone with more information about this photo or wishing to donate photos of the Coulee Region may contact the La Crosse Public Library Archives at 608-789-7136.

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