Altoona’s New Front Porch

mixed-use development on track for River Prairie

Tom Giffey

IN THE FUTURE, ALL CARS WILL BE WHITE. This image by Ayres Associates shows what the “main street” in Altoona’s River Prairie Town Center could look like.
IN THE FUTURE, ALL CARS WILL BE WHITE. This image by Ayres Associates shows what the “main street” in Altoona’s River Prairie Town Center could look like.

Neighborhoods often grow arbitrarily: Some housing here, a few business there, a park (or not), streets that connect well (or not so well), with the rest of the community. Depending on the era, zoning rules (or misrules) and other laws may have shaped the process. Rarely – around here, at least – is there an opportunity to start with a clean slate and build a new neighborhood from scratch.

“It’s an extraordinary time in Altoona, one that brings a lot of opportunities but also a lot of challenges.” – Mike Golat, Altoona city managerYet one of those rare opportunities presented itself to the city of Altoona in 2006 when the U.S. 53 bypass opened, creating an interchange with River Prairie Drive on the city’s west side that was ripe for development. Eight years later, such development is finally well underway and the city is poised to create a brand-new, mixed-use neighborhood in the 52-acre northwest quadrant of River Prairie. Basic infrastructure will be created this fall, while next year roads, trails, sidewalks, and spaces for parks will go in, says Altoona City Manager Mike Golat.

For any city, this kind of development would be a big deal. For a smallish – but rapidly growing – city like Altoona, it’s a Big Deal with capital letters. “This is going to be Altoona’s new front porch,” explained Golat – and he isn’t really exaggerating. River Prairie sits astride U.S. 53, a major north-south corridor, and River Prairie Drive connects the city to its larger neighbor, Eau Claire. In the southeast corner of River Prairie stands the newly built OakLeaf Surgical Hospital; in the southwest quadrant the much-anticipated Woodman’s Food Mart will open next year.

A New Town Center

But the pièce de résistance of River Prairie will undoubtedly be the northwest quadrant, an area that’s been dubbed “River Prairie Town Center.” Despite its location alongside a major highway exit, don’t expect this to be a typically commercial development with a couple of gas stations and a restaurant. “We’re shooting for a true mixed-use neighborhood that has some high-density residential built in,” Golat said in a recent interview in his City Hall office, a large conceptual drawing of the quadrant on the table in front of him. The rendering, prepared by Ayres Associates, is the result of several years worth of refinement of previous plans. While it has yet to be formally adopted, Golat expects the development’s final form to closely resemble what’s on paper now.

So what’s on paper? A “destination restaurant” (think something with a brewpub-like atmosphere, Golat says) with outdoor seating overlooking a park with an amphitheater, a meandering interactive stream, and a railroad-themed play area. A hotel and businesses, including specialty shops and national retailers. A four-season plaza (with a splash pad and a skating loop), access to a boat launch, and places to fish along the shore of the underappreciated Eau Claire River. Many of the mixed-use buildings will be situated along a tree-lined “Main Street” connected on either side by roundabouts built to subtly evoke Altoona’s historic (but now gone) railroad turntable. The two officially announced commercial components of the development are a Kwik Trip convenience store next year and a Westconsin Credit Union branch in 2015 or 2016. However, now that plans are solidifying, Golat expects the city “can start marketing in earnest.”

Golat hopes that changing demographics will make living in River Prairie Town Center attractive. People such as empty-nesters looking to downsize and footloose millennials tend to like living in denser quarters close to services, employment, and entertainment without having to be tied down by homeownership, he said. And having people both living and working in the new neighborhood will be key to its success: “We don’t want it to be busy during the day, and then the energy goes away at night,” Golat said.

Complementary, Not Competitive

These somewhat-final plans for the quadrant have been a long time coming and have gone through at least four iterations by multiple consultants: An original 2007 plan by Schreiber Anderson, which featured a town square and town center; a more retail-focused plan by Access Commercial Real Estate, which bought the land from the city in 2009 and sold it back in 2012; the Harrison plan from 2013, which featured a mixed-use concept; and the most recent schematic by Ayres Associations. The most recent plans were created and refined with the help of “placemaking” workshops and interviews with residents and other interested parties. From these consultations, Golat said, five common visions for the site emerged: using it for outdoor recreation; building a market square or pedestrian plaza; creating a music, art, and cultural center; offering restaurants, cafes, and bakeries; and providing retail shopping. All of these elements are included in the most recent plan.

Alongside the mixed commercial and residential development, one of the crowning public amenities will be a riverside amphitheater perfect for outdoor concerts. If you think that sounds like a description of Phoenix Park a couple of miles away in downtown Eau Claire, you’re not alone. But Golat says the public space in Altoona will be complementary to – not competitive with – Phoenix Park. It will have a larger capacity for events (as many as 3,000 or 4,000, he estimates), and the stage will be covered and ideally have lighting for nighttime performances, he adds. He expects Altoona to coordinate with what’s happening in Eau Claire so as not to hold competing events. In other words, don’t expect a Thursday night concert series in Altoona.

Of course, if the plans come to fruition, we will be able to expect a lot. “It’s an extraordinary time in Altoona, one that brings a lot of opportunities but also a lot of challenges. … But they’re kind of a good problem to have,” Golat said.

Do you have specific ideas about how the city of Altoona can best develop River Prairie? If your answer is yes, contact City Manager Mike Golat at (715) 839-6092 or michaelg@ci.altoona.wi.us.

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