New downtown Eau Claire redesign plans look great

Trevor Kupfer |

Several people (us included) came out of last night’s public meeting (Aug. 4, RCU Headquarters) for the Downtown Riverfront Redesign plan feeling optimistic. And though there are definitely concerns from a variety of residents and business owners, the overall picture and vision is one worth thanking the City, Ayres Associates (project website), and Etc Design Studio for. Long story short, it’s worth getting excited.

While we could easily see a much more aggressive and out-of-the-box design, you’ll see in these sketches that it’s a very reasonably-scoped plan for our market. And please do look at the images ...

While we could easily see a much more aggressive and out-of-the-box design, you’ll see in these sketches that it’s a very reasonably-scoped plan for our market. And please do look at the images, and look in great detail, because you have 30 days to make comments (to Ayres or the city). From there, they’ll take the thoughts, tweak the ideas, and bring a preferred plan to city council, where they’ll ask for general approval. From there, they put together specifics like price tags and construction specs.

Several business owners voiced heavy concern on a few items, and after discussion with the city and designers, it became clear that a lot will fall on the shoulders of business and property owners, as well as organizations like Downtown Eau Claire Inc. and the business improvement districts. Together they must formulate organized plans of attack for things like maintenance, deliveries, show removal, investing in aesthetic improvements, and making pedestrian-scale accommodations.

So let’s talk about the design, shall we?

The Overall Theme

The design vision or theme is “What if you pulled the plug on the rivers?,” said lead designer Garret Perry. “What would it leave behind?” So throughout the sketches you’ll see large hunks of granite and flowing shapes (both in material and direction). Eau Claire Street’s shape resembles the flow of Eau Claire River, while Barstow matches the Chippewa, and the Haymarket Plaza area marks where they meet and create something unique unto itself.

Eau Claire Street

This ended up being a combination of the “river flow” and “celebration” designs they brought forward earlier. That is to say, there’s no curb (block party, anyone?) to make it an environment of its own, and one very pedestrian in scale. There’s wider sidewalks on The State Theatre side, and tons of design accoutrements packed in to help it "twinkle and sparkle."

Barstow Street

Barstow has fewer of these accoutrements, but still several. This includes regular islands of granite blocks (for temporary seating), native plantings similar to Phoenix Park, designations for café seating tables, steel benches, trash cans, and all that jazz. Car lanes go down a foot each, and the sidewalks each go a foot wider. It is, indeed, going to be two way.

“A lot of activity, movement, and flow in the street. We want to break the typical model and create an environment where you have to pay attention … and the hope is it’ll be a draw, promote economic development, and leave an impact,” Perry said.

Haymarket Plaza

The most noticeable item here, without a doubt, is an amphitheater. This is an amazing large-event facility, and a more formal one than Phoenix Park. While Phoenix is a green park space, this one is an urban setting. And there will be a pedestrian bridge connecting them both, eventually.

Some were a bit skeptical as to the everyday uses of this space, but Perry emphasized options like pressure-sensored splash fountains, ice skating in winter, a launch for tubes/canoes/kayaks, fishing, and just a relaxing riverview hangout. So, yes, it includes physical access to the river (and there’s a possibility for under the Grand Avenue Bridge, as well).

The Riverwalk

This stretches from the confluence to Lake Street and is designed as “interlocking wave patterns” (their words) with overlooks. They’re like mini arch shapes all put together to create flow and direct pedestrians eyes and interest to the side streets. It will accommodate bikes as well as pedestrians.

The Library/City Hall

This is the one thing that’s most incomplete in the plan, as it requires more negotiating with those parties, as well as U.S. Bank, to figure out which plan to implement. But the two likely options have sketches available for further comments.

What To Do Downtown

Phil Johnson, a former parks and rec honcho-turned Ayres consultant, pulled a bunch of interested parties together and had a couple of meetings to discuss the kinds of things to do in the future downtown. So as we run through what rose to the top of the heap, we’ll also list how the design could incorporate them: art (SculptureTour), playing (splash fountains in amphitheater, and possibility a Kubb area), history (possible plaques or tour materials), fishing (access), kayak/canoe/tube (access), dining (outdoor café seating), bikes (racks and riverwalk), and ice skating (amphitheater in winter).

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