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Downtown Donut? City considers new parking approach for Block 7

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth

Block 7, awaiting development.
Block 7, awaiting development.

Numerous plans have come and gone in recent years for the parcel of downtown Eau Claire known as Block 7, which has been a “temporary” parking lot for the better part of a decade. While apartments, offices, and even a large parking garage have filled in around it, proposals for Block 7 have repeatedly failed to materialize. It’s not that the 1.6-acre block at the southwest corner of North Barstow and Wisconsin streets is undesirable: In fact, plenty of developers have come up with intriguing ideas for the space. It’s that these plans have typically been hampered by that most mundane of urban problems: parking.

Several developers have considered making underground parking part of the site’s development, but found that the cost would be prohibitive. Aaron White, the city’s economic development manager, noted that while flat asphalt parking costs an estimated $10,000 per stall and vertical parking structures cost $24,000 per stall, underground parking costs a whopping $40,000 per parking space. A plan submitted last September for Block 7 by Eau Claire-based Commonweal Development included an underground parking structure that would have cost about $4 million, White noted. That’s roughly double the amount of tax increment financing the city is willing to devote to incentivizing parking on the site.

Now, the city’s Redevelopment Authority, which owns Block 7, is pushing for a solution that hasn’t yet been tried in Eau Claire. “We’re taking the stance where we’re looking at parking differently,” White said. Specifically, the RDA is exploring the idea of a parking facility with a building wrapped around it, a style dubbed the “Texas donut” because it has frequently been used in fast-growing cities in Texas and other Southern states. In a typical Texas donut, a parking structure is shielded from view on all sides by a multistory apartment building.

The RDA’s board voted in late February to hire a consultant to develop recommendations on how to build a Texas donut-style structure on Block 7. White explained that Block 7 isn’t actually big enough to accommodate a traditional Texas donut, but the wrap-around style could be adapted for the site. (“Texas croissant,” anyone?) A consultant is expected to be hired in the coming weeks to produce rough plans that will, in turn, be sent to developers who’ve expressed interest in Block 7 in the past.

“I think we can get to a point where we can find a developer who says, ‘Yeah, that’s something that’s within our wheelhouse,’ and we can partner up and do that kind of development,” White said.

Meanwhile, a project on the so-called “liner site” just south of Block 7 is moving forward. The RDA board has signed memorandums of understanding with the Children’s Museum of Eau Claire and Monarch Ventures, a private developer, who intend to build on the 0.6-acre parcel. Monarch is expected to break ground on its portion of the project, which would include a restaurant and other commercial space, in the coming months.