Apartments, Restaurants, and a New Museum: Downtown Eau Claire Lots See New Proposals

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth

The "Liner Site" is shown to the left, in front of the parking garage. "Block 7" is currently a parking lot, shown to the right. Both parcels are on N. Barstow Street in downtown Eau Claire.

Apartments, restaurants, and maybe a new home for the children’s museum: These are among developers’ proposed uses for two prime parcels in downtown Eau Claire. Based upon these recently submitted plans, the Eau Claire Redevelopment Authority will soon decide which developers will be allowed to build on the two city-owned properties along North Barstow Street.

On Wednesday, Sept. 18, the RDA heard brief presentations about four proposals, two of them for Block 7 (which is now a parking lot at the corner of North Barstow and Wisconsin streets) and two of them for the so-called liner site (between North Barstow and the parking ramp). The seven-member commission is expected to meet in closed session sometime in October to discuss the proposals and choose which developers the city wishes to work with.

The process is a bit of déjà vu for the RDA: Last fall, the RDA selected bids from Eau Claire-based Pablo Properties for both sites, and began final negotiations with the developer. Pablo Properties – whose other projects include the Jamf office building and the remodeled Lismore hotel – wanted to build a office building and new children’s museum on Block 7 and an innovative “container park” on the liner site. However, Pablo pulled out of the deal in June, saying the project was no longer financially viable. That decision sent the RDA back to the drawing board, and the city soon put out another request for proposals from prospective developers, which were due in August. The four proposals are outlined below.

Block 7

Block 7 – sometimes dubbed the Livery lot because of its location across the street from the Livery Restaurant & Saloon, 316 Wisconsin St. – is a 1.6-acre parcel bordered by North Barstow, Galloway, and Wisconsin streets. Over the summer, the city asked developers for plans that were “commercial, residential, mixed use, or a combination thereof.” Two were received:

Commonweal Development

Twice before, this Eau Claire based developer (which, among other things, built the Haymarket Landing mixed-use building across from the Pablo Center) has submitted plans for one (or both) of the sites. Its current plan, prepared with River Valley Architects, calls for four four-story apartment buildings clustered around a central plaza and built atop underground parking. The complex would include 182 studio, one-, and two-bedroom apartments, and perhaps ground-floor commercial space. Stuart Schaefer of Commonweal told the RDA that while filling some commercial space is downtown Eau Claire has been a challenge, there is still strong demand for downtown housing.

Movin’ Out Inc.

Madison-based development firm Movin’ Out also proposed a mostly residential approach to Block 7, with two three-story buildings, both of them containing one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments. The 40 to 50 units would be aimed at mixed-income tenants, and the project would be funded with the help of tax credits from the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority.  Most units would be set aside for renters making between 30% and 60% of the county’s median income, while other units would be available at market rates. “We feel the location, right in the middle of downtown Eau Claire, can best address a key need of providing affordable housing close to employers,” Movin’ Out said in its proposal. The developer added that it was open to partnering “with other respondents or interested parties such as a market-rate developer or the Eau Claire Children’s Museum.”

Liner Site

This site, where the downtown post office stood until a few years ago, covers about six-tenths of an acre and is bordered by the parking ramp, North Barstow Street, Galloway Street, and Riverfront Terrace. The RDA received two proposals to develop this property:

Children’s Museum of Eau Claire

The children’s museum – which had been part of Pablo Properties’ previous plans for Block 7, which didn’t reach fruition – is now partnering with Monarch Ventures to build a two-story, 23,500-square-foot museum next to a 27,000-square-foot building that would house a first-floor restaurant and two stories of commercial space. The 9,000-square-foot eatery, which would be owned by Hudson restaurateur Andrew Kron, would include covered and outdoor patios for diners. The new children’s museum would be larger than the current facility at 220 S. Barstow St. and would include larger exhibit space, a food and beverage option, and 5,000 square feet of green space as well as facilities for the Family Resource Center of Eau Claire and a 4-year-old kindergarten.

Merge Urban Development Group

Merge, which has offices in Madison and Cedar Falls, Iowa, proposes a mixed-use development that would go hand-in-hand with the company’s plans for the Railroad Lot across North Barstow Street. A seven-story building fronting North Barstow would feature space for a restaurant and four micro-sized retailers on the first floor with 71 apartments above, ranging in size from efficiencies to two-bedroom units. A smaller building, facing Riverfront Terrace on the parking ramp’s south side, would include 20 additional apartments, including four walk-ups. Merge says 60% of the apartments would be priced for people making 80% of the county median income. The use of sustainable “mass timber” – a strong construction material made of layers of wood – is a unique component of this proposal.

Aaron White, the city’s economic development manager, told RDA members on Sept. 18 that he was still working with city staff members to get detailed financial analyses of the proposals. City Manager Dale Peters told RDA members that the city wanted to act on the proposals quickly, and that a special meeting would likely be scheduled before the committee’s next regular meeting, which is slated for Wednesday, Oct. 16.