Riverfront Revitalization

North First Street, Wausau, Wisconsin

1. Project Overview

Goal of the project: The subject of this award nomination is a 31.0-acre area in downtown Wausau, Wisconsin bordering the east bank of the Wisconsin River. Revitalization of this area has been on-going since the City's adoption in 1995 of a "River Edge Master Plan."

The origin of the project can arguably be traced back to the passage in 1972 of the federal Clean Water Act, which resulted in a significant reduction in the amount of pollution being discharged to the Wisconsin River by paper mills and other area industries. The improvements in water quality rapidly led to a fundamental change in public perception of the City's waterfront on the Wisconsin River, from a noxious feature to be avoided, to a potential amenity and high value recreational resource. This change in perception led to the establishment in 1974 of the Wausau River Edge Commission, which began initial planning efforts focused on the riverfront. An initial accomplishment was the development in the 1970s of an urban whitewater kayaking course within a channel of the Wisconsin River bordering the southern portion of the project area.

The initial project goals as outlined in the 1995 "River Edge Master Plan" were envisioned as occurring over a 20 to 30 year project period, and included the following specific goals for the riverfront:
  • Establish a continuous river edge parkway on both sides of the Wisconsin River wherever physically possible
  • Bring people back to the River for recreation and other benefits
  • Participate cooperatively with others developing compatible river related projects
  • Complete development of a master plan and development of a 20- to 50-year vision for the River corridor.
These initial project goals were expanded with the adoption in 2000 of a "Wausau Central Business District Master Plan" to include:
  • Center the economic future of the central business district (CBD) around the Wisconsin River by expanding the Wausau CBD to encompass development sites on the east and west sides of the River.
  • Identify new tax base development in the CBD that can be used to support public investment in transit, parking, street improvements, pedestrian improvements, and public space improvements.
  • Establish a new theme and identity for the Wausau CBD related to the Wisconsin River and its unique historic, recreational, and scenic character.
  • Build partnerships between State, County, City, local government and the private sector to accomplish comprehensive redevelopment goals.
These ambitious goals for the project area, which included acquisition, assessment, cleanup, and redevelopment of a nearly one-mile section of the City's downtown waterfront, have largely been achieved, as detailed in this award nomination.

Additional planning and implementation is underway for the northern 0.5 mile section of the project area.

In 2012, a Northeast Riverfront Master Plan was completed for this area and efforts are currently under way to: (a) "daylight" a storm sewer and restore a previously navigable stream, (b) extend the bi-modal River Edge trail, (c) remediate soil contamination, and (d) continue redevelopment planning. This work is being accomplished utilizing two U.S. EPA brownfield cleanup grants, a U.S. EPA brownfield area-wide planning grant, as well as private donations and City funds.

Location of the site: The City of Wausau is located in north-central Wisconsin, approximately 3 hours northwest of Milwaukee, 3 hours east of Minneapolis/St. Paul, and 2 hours north of Madison. The site is composed of 23 parcels, all of which are current or former brownfield properties, which together form an approximately one-mile section of the City's east waterfront on the Wisconsin River. This area is generally bounded by Washington Street on the south, 1st Street on the east, Bridge Street on the north, and the Wisconsin River on the west. Due to its large size, the project site is described herein as containing southern, middle, and northern redevelopment areas or segments, with the southern area defined as the 2-block area located south of Scott Street (a major east-west thoroughfare crossing the Wisconsin River), the middle area defined as an approximately 4-block long area extending north from Scott Street to the former Central Wisconsin Limited Railroad right-of-way, and the northern area extending from the former railroad right-of-way to Bridge Street.

The 23 parcels are presented herein as a single "site" as a result of sharing the following key attributes:
  • All of the parcels are contiguous (except for street right-of-ways).
  • All of the parcels either are current or former brownfields.
  • All but three of the parcels were acquired by either the City or the Marathon County Development Corporation (MCDEVCO) as a key initial step in the redevelopment process.
  • All of the parcels were targeted for assessment as part of a U.S. EPA community-wide brownfield assessment pilot grant awarded to the City in 2000.
The northern redevelopment area is in the initial stages of redevelopment. Therefore, the economic benefits described herein are associated with project components completed to date within the southern and middle redevelopment areas.

Approximate size of the site (in acres): The total area of the site is 31.0 acres, of which 5.5 acres are located within the southern redevelopment area, 8.4 acres within the middle redevelopment area, and 17.1 acres within the northern redevelopment area.

Former use of the site: By 1884 (the date of the earliest land use maps) nearly the entire site was in active use, with the southern area occupied by numerous dwellings, stores, and a blacksmith shop; the middle area by dwellings, a flour mill, and railroad tracks; and the northern area fully occupied by the Wausau Lumber Co. saw mill and lumber storage yards. Over the next century, the southern area became the location for at least four separate gas stations and auto repair facilities, numerous warehouses, a movie theatre, stores, and several institutional uses. The only consistent use was a public library developed by 1912 and replaced at the same location in 1995 by the current Marathon County Public Library building. The middle area was occupied by dwellings, warehouses, milling companies, stores, railroad tracks, and at least one gas station. The northern area transitioned from lumber storage to more intensive industrial uses, which by 1954 included a machine shop, a bulk petroleum fuel and coal depot, a tool company, and warehouses and a scrap iron yard for a large foundry located on an adjacent parcel.

The greater than 130 year history of residential, commercial, and industrial uses resulted in legacy contamination for which in many instances there is no known or financially viable responsible party. This contamination coupled with the placement of low quality and often contaminated fill adjacent to the Wisconsin River significantly complicated site redevelopment at many of the properties and thereby hindered private investment in the area.

Actual end use of the site: A total of 13.1 acres of land in the middle and southern areas have been redeveloped: 8.5 acres have been redeveloped for commercial uses (offices, an eye clinic, a bank, stores, and a restaurant), 1.5 acres adjacent to the Wisconsin River have been converted to public green space and recreational land uses (a trail and plaza) and 3.1 acres have been converted to other public uses (including a library, public parking lot, and a parking structure). Only 0.8 acres remain to be redeveloped in these areas.

Date the project was completed: Although redevelopment of the northern area has not yet been completed, redevelopment of the middle and southern areas totaling 13.1 acres is largely complete. The following major economic redevelopment components have been completed to date within this portion of the site (and are the basis for consideration for the economic impact award):

Year(s) Constr. Project Name Address Description Construction Cost
1993-95 Marathon County Public Library (main branch and headquarters) 300 N. 1st St. 3-story, 40,000-square foot addition; remodeling of 26,000-square foot existing building $5.2 million
2002-03 Riverside Place (aka Wausau Benefits Building) 11 Scott St. 4-story, 98,000-square foot office building $10 million
2002-03 Jefferson Street parking ramp 425 N. 1st St. (also 101, 107, 111, 115, 119, 121 Scott St.; 102, 110, 120, and 130 Jefferson St.) 6-story public parking structure with space for 654 cars. First floor includes approximately 21,000-square feet of privately owned commercial condominium units. Project includes skywalk crossing N. 1st Street. $20 million
2005-07 First Wausau Tower (aka Dudley Tower) 500 N. 1st St. 11-story, 240-foot high, 100,000-square foot office building. $20 million
2006-07 Park Plaza 146 W. Washington St. Pedestrian walkway and public plaza constructed $350,000
2006-07 Jefferson Street parking ramp 425 N. 1st St. Addition of 140 stalls on top of roof $1 million
2006-08 Eye Clinic of Wisconsin Building 800 N. 1st St. 3-story, 62,710-square foot medical clinic $12.5 million
2012 Parking lot improvements 614 N. 1st St. Convert vacant lot to paved parking lot $250,000

Stantec Consulting Services Inc.,
12075 Corporate Parkway, Mequon, Wisconsin

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