Retiring City Planner Tufte Has Seen Eau Claire Transform Itself
Eau Claire looked very different in 1985 when Darryl Tufte arrived from Boise, Idaho, to become city planner. Oakwood Mall didn’t exist, nor did the North Crossing. U.S. Highway 53 still followed Hastings Way, North Clairemont Avenue was just a two-lane road beyond Menomonie Street, and what is now known as Mayo Clinic Health System was still Luther Hospital and Midelfort Clinic.
“The most significant change, when you sit and think about this community, is what’s happened with our waterways.” – Darryl Tufte, recently retired city planner,
on how Eau Claire has changed since the 1980s
And then there was the city’s faltering downtown. “It was in bad shape,” Tufte recalled with a chuckle. “I don’t know how else to say it.” Business were relocating to the city’s edges, and what is now Phoenix Park at the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers was the home of an abandoned gas plant and a former scrap metal yard.
Tufte, who retired March 1 as the city’s community development director, saw a tremendous amount of transformation in the city over the course of more than three decades – transformation he helped shape, albeit usually in the background.
“The most significant change, when you sit and think about this community, is what’s happened with our waterways,” Tufte said. In the mid-1980s, there were no trails and few parks along Eau Claire’s rivers. This was in contrast to his previous home of Boise: In the early 1970s, that city had begun creating a “Greenbelt” of parks and trails along the Boise River.
But the thinking about Eau Claire’s rivers began to shift in the late 1980s. Tufte credits the change in part to Pat Ivory, the city’s senior planner, who wrote Eau Claire’s first waterways plan in 1988. The city created a Redevelopment Authority, which was tasked with reviving blighted areas, and eventually built Phoenix Park. The Royal Credit Union headquarters and other private developments began to rise near the water’s edge.
Prior to Tufte’s arrival, the City of Eau Claire had no comprehensive plan. “The whole aspect of comprehensive planning didn’t exist ... to the extent that it is now,” he said. “A plan’s a way to inspire a community to look at its future and decide what do we really want to do in terms of long-term growth and development of the community.” Tufte wrote the first plan in 1993, and the document has been revamped twice since, in 2005 and 2015.
Early in his tenure, Tufte was also responsible for rewriting the city’s zoning code, while Ivory rewrote the sign code. While these revisions called for better quality and design of development, Tufte said they also streamlined the approval process for developers. “I think the developers like it because it’s a simplified process,” he said. “It’s not as time-consuming, and time is money for developers. I think the community likes it because now they get to see what the developer’s proposing up front.”
Among Tufte’s proudest achievements, he said, was the effort to create Lakeshore Elementary School. When the Eau Claire school district decided to shutter Randall School, it originally wanted to build a replacement outside the Historic Randall Park Neighborhood. Tufte and others had to first convince the school district to keep the elementary in the neighborhood, then had to get the city to acquire property along Half Moon Lake. First the school was built, followed by an adjacent city park, which now features a skate park, connections to recreational trails, a community garden, and more – all along the water.
Tufte’s last day on the job was March 1. The following day, the city announced that Scott H. Allen had been hired as community development director. Allen, who will start April 16, currently holds a similar position with the city of Blue Springs, Missouri, a suburb of Kansas City with about 54,000 residents. While he has worked in Missouri for the past 15 years, Allen was previously the planner and zoning administrator for the city of Marshfield and is a native of Wausau.
Now that he’s retired, Tufte and his wife, Lori, intend to remain in Eau Claire. Over the course of 33 years, the city has become home.
“Eau Claire is a nice community. It’s that right size where it’s got stuff to do, and it’s in proximity to the Twin Cities,” he said. “It doesn’t have the crime and the traffic congestion and all that big cities have to deal with. It’s a nice community to live in. It’s a good place to raise kids. ... It’s got that slow rate of growth that makes for a good community.”