Redevelopment of the former Kmart site in La Crosse is one step closer to a reality, as a group of developers and business owners team up with the goal of creating a multi-use space that compliments the neighborhood.
"We're fired up," said Marvin Wanders of Three Sixty Real Estate Solutions, one of the groups now involved with the project.
Neighbors and developers have had their eyes on the site since Kmart closed its doors in 2017, but no plans have quite come to fruition. But that's likely to change in the coming year.
Three Sixty has entered into a development agreement with the site's owners, VSC Corporation, which owns the neighboring Village Shopping Center and has owned the Kmart site since 2018, as well as with Festival Foods, an "anchor" business in the district that will be critical to the project's design.
The project has no designs, layouts or details quite yet, as developers first look to the surrounding neighborhoods for feedback on what they want at the site, and what they don't.
"Really at this point our vision is to listen to the neighborhood and listen to the community and engage the community to get feedback before we start putting all the pieces together," Wanders said while giving the Tribune a tour of the space.
But the overall goal is to turn the site into a popular node in the city, he said, where people want to be, a vision he thinks both developers and the community share.
Currently the lot sits empty, with a large vacant parking lot and empty big box store, which stretches long down the block, a barrier between the neighborhood and the current staples residents want to get to and enjoy.
It's cornered by a popular intersection that many people often use to leave the city. But the right development could instead turn it into a destination.
Features that would likely work well in the space include residential, small retail shops — like a brew pub, which Wanders excitedly said he wants "so bad" — some office space, and definitely green space.
"We got interested in this because we thought we could get it to the finish line," Wanders said, and "build off the anchors" already in the community.
Those anchors have already been identified in early conversations with neighbors, such as Java Vino and Festival Foods, though the leaders want to hear more about what residents like about the neighborhood, and what should they build off from.
Wanders said that the focus will not be to compete with surrounding businesses, but instead to compliment and fill in gaps.
But one of the most critical components to the project will be focusing on pedestrians: softening up the vehicle-heavy intersection and corner lot to be more "comfortable" for bikers, walkers, families and residents alike.
"When you think of places you go where you're comfortable, that sense of place, if you think of your favorite street," Wanders said, "that's what we want to do. And in order to do that you have to focus on the pedestrian first, create a sense of place where people want to be at."
Wanders described the lot currently as a sort of island that residents have to maneuver around to get to their favorite spots in the neighborhood. The vacant store runs long and narrow along the north end of the lot, with fencing surrounding half of it. A small opening allows for foot traffic to travel through the lot, though the aesthetics of that route are a bit dreary.
Making the space more pedestrian-friendly could include prioritizing green space, walkways throughout the lot, and improving the bordering infrastructure along Farnham Street, a common thoroughfare running along the north end of the lot, and Losey Boulevard and State Road. Doing all of this could include softer concrete, decorative additions, bump-outs and more.
Another detail the developers hope to draw from is the natural resources. Standing in the parking lot looking east, visitors get the perfect view of Hedgehog and Miller Bluff towering over the neighborhood, and hiking and biking activities are just minutes away from the spot.
From a design point, the space is likely to take a modern style, Wanders said, emphasizing that the goal is not to duplicate other nodes around the city, many of which are historic in style, though it will take elements from the residential spaces surrounding it, many of which are mid-century, one-story family homes.
Next steps for the project will prioritize public engagement before any planning is done.
The development group will host an open house and input session at the Kmart site on Wednesday, May 26, at 5 p.m. to begin hearing ideas. It's open to the public, and there will be maps and boards where residents can write down their ideas on what they want and what they don't want in the project.
The groups are also hoping to gain input on potential branding for the site, so they can move away from calling it the Kmart site, a looming name that has reminded the neighborhood how slow-moving a redevelopment has been.
"The thing that I think is critical is: the neighbors understand this area better than we do, and we want to listen first and hear what they are looking for on this corner. And then we can build on that," Wanders said.
From there, developers will then begin to draft plans over the summer using the neighbors' input. Two other community input sessions are then set for the coming months to gain more feedback on smaller details and to give an update, and finally a rendering of the plan later this fall.
If all goes "smoothly" there's a chance demolition or some construction could break this year still, but it's more likely that a groundbreaking will take place next spring.
After years of waiting and some moments of whiplash for the communities surrounding the greyfield site, Wanders said that the neighborhoods and city are already feeling optimistic about the potential plans and process.
"Our focus is mixed-use developments, and we want to do developments that people want to be at. So we want to create that real strong sense of place with our developments," he said. "Because at the end of the day, if people are attracted to it, they're like, 'I want to go to this development,' that matters to the businesses ... and the overall success of the project. And so we will create that sense of place within the community. That's important."