Big Orange Crane

welcoming downtown EC’s tall, but temporary guest

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Joe Maurer

Driving on Main Street into downtown Eau Claire, you can see it. Up ahead, the Big Orange Crane stands tall and proud at the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers. When it first arrived a few months back, it was a delightful surprise, seeing it from that far away. After all, there aren’t many things in town quite that tall.

Also, I’m about as spatially perceptive as a drunk, one-eyed donkey with a dishwasher tied to its back, so seeing exactly how far away and in what direction you’d find the confluence was a real treat for me. Still is.

I also like what the Big Orange Crane means. It means the Haymarket Plaza development is underway. It means the Confluence Project as a whole is that much closer to reality. And it means that big things are continuing to happen downtown.

It may be hard to believe for some people, but even the individuals who vocally supported tearing town the Kline building and 2 S. Barstow like historic buildings. For most of us, destroying those old structures was not an easy issue. None of it was black and white.   For about six years, I worked directly across the street from where that crane now stands. And for seven years before that I worked nearby, often walking down Barstow Street to my job, right past that particular chunk of land twice a day. This was before Phoenix Park and the RCU building, before ground was broken for any of the new development on that end of downtown.  

I was sorry to see the old buildings on Barstow torn down, but I felt it was necessary. I feel like the opportunities provided by that land are just too great to pass up. So seeing new structures forming along that city block, here in my hometown, is very exciting. I feel it’s the right direction in which to head.

We’ve all got opinions on the Confluence Project, and on what should be happening to downtown in general. I bet we all wish we had our own Big Orange Crane, able to rearrange and create as we see fit, building up our own downtown visions and hoping they prove worthy of this place we love.

Here’s the thing: Pretty much everyone has an opinion about downtown development because pretty much everyone loves downtown. We all want it to be a vibrant city center, economically viable and culturally super-fantastic. People who don’t like downtown aren’t even part of the discussions. They’re too busy at home watching Everybody Loves Raymond reruns.

Furthermore, people who (due to some kind of pathological disorder) don’t like historic buildings are also not part of the discussion. It may be hard to believe for some people, but even the individuals who vocally supported tearing town the Kline building and 2 S. Barstow like historic buildings. For most of us, destroying those old structures was not an easy issue. None of it was black and white.  

And difficult discussions about what to do with downtown’s aging buildings are still to come. They may not be as public or as high profile as the Confluence Project debates, but they are coming.

What about the oft-discussed Huebsch building on the corner of Galloway and North Dewey? Personally, I don’t like it. But I don’t dislike it because it’s old. And I don’t dislike it because it’s crumbling away. I dislike it because it’s ugly. It’s always been ugly, from the day it was built. It’s just a big brick box. I don’t find anything architecturally interesting about it. Yes, I’ve seen photos from the building’s heyday ... still boring. If you see something special about it, let me know, I’m all ears.

I’m sure someone – someone with a lot of money – could make the interior look amazing, but at the end of the day, you’ve still got a big brick box. The added cost of restoring that building seems hardly worth the benefits of preserving its silhouette for future generations. Meanwhile, one of downtown Eau Claire’s finest riverfront properties sits there unused, home to a three-story dilapidated mess.

I hate to say it, but the best course for a developer – and downtown – might be to tear it down and start over.

Now, like most of you, I’m not a developer. I’m not a city planner. And I’m not a wealthy business owner. I’m not an expert in historic urban restoration. So yes – I might be wrong. That’s why I believe the first option to consider with an old building is preservation and reuse. That needs to come before any other consideration.

All this said, I understand that, without a certain set of people and circumstances, preservation can’t always happen. It’s a hard pill to swallow. Some properties are absolutely worth fighting for. But not all of them.

In some cases, a Big Orange Crane looks better to me.