It's Gettin' Real
a new $85 million arts center, student housing, and commercial complex slated for downtown EC
A massive collaboration between UW-Eau Claire, Commonweal Development, Market & Johnson, and Eau Claire Regional Arts Center will lead to a roughly $85 million project at the Haymarket Site along the confluence that includes a community arts center and a living/learning mixed-use residential complex. The full announcement of the project came at a press conference on May 15 at RCU.
“By doing this together, we’ll make something better than any of us could do alone,” said Mike Rindo, assistant chancellor for facilities at UWEC.
The mixed-use building, slated to replace The Farmers Store Plaza on Eau Claire Street, has retail/restaurant space on the ground floor, underground parking, and living spaces on the upper floors. Breaking ground around spring 2014 and opening in fall of 2015, the building is intended to be an exciting living/learning community for around 300 UWEC arts students, and possibly some artists or faculty in residence. According to renderings it would be six stories tall. It will reportedly cost between $25 and $30 million, funded primarily by students and partially by the private sector (the retail portion).
The proposed anchor of the project is a 150,000 square-foot shared community arts center that would replace the Market Square and Chase buildings on Graham Avenue. The $50 to $55 million building would span roughly four levels and include three theater spaces: one to replace The State (1,200 seats), one to replace UWEC’s Kjer Theatre (450 seats), and a black box (250 seats). Slated for completion in the summer of 2016, this would also include multiple art gallery areas (for permanent pieces as well as rotating), plus areas for set and costume design, classrooms, studios, rehearsal spaces, a dance studio, offices for organizations and faculty, and lesson spaces.
Not only does this replace outdated existing facilities, but it also opens up a host of new opportunities.
“This has the chance to revolutionize programming for us because the stage is three times bigger,” said Ben Richgruber, executive director of ECRAC. “Right now, I can’t bring in Broadway shows. I can’t even bring in Blue Man Group, and that’s just three guys in face paint. This can.”
These shared spaces between UWEC, ECRAC, and the greater community are extremely versatile places that allow flexibility for diverse performances and performers, Rindo added.
“There needs to be a sense that this is a place for all, from stand-up comedy to headbanger concerts,” he said. “Literally anything you can think of.”
Part of the city’s hope for redeveloping the riverfront is to inspire private investment that increases the tax base. Even though this is mostly a non-profit partnership with only some tax base increase, with the event-goer traffic and guaranteed presence of students, this will mean more in the long run.
“This is a game-changer,” Richgruber said. “This is an anchor, and private investment will follow. Property values will go up, and the city tax base will go up. Development can’t help but happen.”
Rindo pointed to areas like Appleton and La Crosse, whose similar developments led to major upswings for their downtowns. “Our vision for this is that it’s going to be a community destination and people will come down there, and to downtown in general, because that’s the place to be. … We think it’ll do to South Barstow what Phoenix Park and the farmers market did for North Barstow.” With all this in mind, Rindo and Richgruber said they hope the city is willing to follow through on the proposed plaza, pedestrian bridge, and riverwalk that would surround this project, and work on a timeline that fits together. Thus far, stars have all figuratively aligned.
However, premature media coverage of the announcement suggested it’s possible this project could raze the buildings and businesses along the West side of the first block of South Barstow. According to Rindo that is not a confirmed part of the plan at this point. None of those properties have been acquired, nor are they detailed in the plans. Clearly though, how those properties interplay with the new development will be a major discussion point in the coming months.
It was also suggested the project could cost the city an additional $9 million in infrastructure. But according to Rindo and Richgruber, in terms of infrastructure, this project is not expected to add specific costs beyond what’s been talked about in city plans for any project on this site (riverwalk, footbridge, plaza, parking, etc.). And any development there would have a public component.
Planning discussions for the Downtown Master Plan, Clear Vision event facilities, Good Life, and downtown reconstruction served as an initial catalyst, officials agreed. And local developer Commonweal has taken a leadership role. “(We’ve) been interested in developing this property for a number of years and been closely watching the Clear Vision community events facilities discussions and other planning processes,” Commonweal President Stuart Schaefer said in a press release.
So while Commonweal investigated downtown properties, UWEC investigated partnerships for expansion off-campus and talked with The State Theatre. Now they’ve all come together, and provided this leads to some private philanthropy and possible incentives and grants, it could bring something to community without having to alter taxes. “All these separate tracks were going to the same station,” Richgruber said. “And now, suddenly, everything’s a go.”
There are obviously still questions to be answered (where’s parking? what happens to The State and Kjer? who’s paying what?), but for now there’s just a sense of excitement for a new model of large-scale development in Eau Claire.