City Seeks Federal Grant to Build 7-Story Mixed-Use Transfer Center

Tom Giffey

Basic site concept from the new downtown Eau Claire bus transfer center, to be built on its current location on S. Farwell Street. Image: City of Eau Claire
Basic site concept from the new downtown Eau Claire bus transfer center, to be built on its current location on S. Farwell Street. (Image: City of Eau Claire, click for a closer look)

The City of Eau Claire’s latest plan to replace its antiquated downtown bus transfer center with a mixed-used building hinges on a hard-to-get federal grant, but city officials are hopeful about their chances of winning the funds.

Time is tight to apply for the money: The feds must receive the city’s application for a $5 million TIGER grant by Oct. 16, which explains why plans are being fast-tracked.

Time is tight to apply for the money: The feds must receive the city’s application for a $5 million TIGER grant by Oct. 16, which explains why plans are being fast-tracked. On Thursday, Oct. 5, the city’s Transit Commission unanimously backed seeking the grant, and the City Council will consider a similar vote at its meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 10.

The TIGER program (in case you were curious, that stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) offers $500 million for building transportation infrastructure in communities nationwide. Consequently, competition for the grants is tough, and only 6 percent of applicants get a cut of the TIGER cash, explained Tom Wagener, manager of Eau Claire Transit. Nonetheless, Wagener said, “We’re optimistic that we have a project that meets the criteria very well.”

The city’s current proposal, which was developed in recent months, would replace the current bus transfer center with a new building on the same site, the 400 block of South Farwell Street. However, while the present transfer center is little more than a concrete shack built as a temporary structure in 1985, the new facility would be a $21.43 million, seven-story structure. Beyond the hoped-for $5 million federal grant and a $1.25 million match from the city (some of which would cover the cost of four new city buses), the rest of the project’s cost would be paid for by a private developer, Gorman and Co. of Oregon, Wisconsin.

Last year, Gorman was the only developer to respond to the city’s request for proposals to create a mixed-use building that would include a new transfer center. Originally, the city had narrowed its focus to a city-owned parking lot on Farwell Street next to the historic Schlegelmilch House. However, Wagener explained, that site had accessibility problems: Bus riders coming from the downtown area would have to cross busy Farwell Street to get to the transfer center.

“We were trying to come up with a design we thought would work for everybody, and because it was on the opposite side of Farwell Street, we couldn’t get around that issue,” Wagener explained. Over the summer, the city shifted its focus back to the current site.

While the city’s ideas are still preliminary, Wagner said they call for a structure with a ground-floor transfer center above approximately 71 underground parking stalls. (Wagner pointed out this is more parking spots than are provided in the small lot that is now adjacent to the transfer center.) The ground floor might also include offices for the city’s transit division as well as possible commercial space, such as a coffee shop. Above that would be two-story parking ramp, topped by as many as four stories of apartments. Other than the transfer center and the underground parking, which would be owned by the city, the bulk of the facility would be privately owned and operated.

In a best-case scenario, if the city is awarded the grant (a decision is expected by mid-winter), design work could occur early next year and construction could begin as early as late 2018, Wagener said. If the city doesn’t receive the grant, however, the plans will again be put on hold until the next federal grant cycle. Wagener noted that the City of Milwaukee took this approach, and it finally paid off: After applying for the grant annually since 2009, Milwaukee finally won it in 2015.

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