Our Views: Momentum might be building toward makeover for downtown Janesville

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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

If you haven’t strolled the Rock River in downtown Janesville recently, you might want to do so now.

In two years, the scene could look different—much different.

The city has scheduled removal in 2016 of that ugly, crumbling parking plaza covering much of the river between Court and Milwaukee streets. If fundraising goes well, a new outdoor amphitheater could grace the east riverbank just downstream between the Janesville Performing Arts Center and Hedberg Public Library.

On Monday, the plan commission agreed to buy an office building at 51 S. River St. for $150,000. The council could approve the purchase July 14. It might be a small parcel, but it looms large in plans detailed in the city’s 2007 downtown vision and strategy document.

That’s because the building is attached to the former Plaza Furniture building, which the city owns. They are right off that river-top parking plaza, and when the city owns both, it can demolish them simultaneously, perhaps yet this year.

While the resulting space might help offset parking lost when the plaza comes down, don’t expect it to remain a parking lot forever. Instead, that strategy document suggests adding parking a block west. It’s more likely that the lots will eventually serve as green space for those using a planned pedestrian bridge over the river.

Scan the 2007 document, and you’ll see repeated references to such a footbridge. Two maps pinpoint its location. You’ll even find an artist’s rendering.

Some business owners might prefer permanent parking on the furniture and office building lots to replace the 200-plus spots that will be lost when the plaza is removed. Some sections of the plaza, however, have been barricaded since engineers found decay and deemed them unsafe. Besides, having users of a pedestrian bridge spill into a parking lot on the river’s west bank wouldn’t be smart.

Make the riverfront an inviting place, and customers might be more willing to walk a bit farther to businesses. They might enjoy leisurely strolls along the riverfront, perhaps stopping for a drink or bite to eat.

“Embracing the Rock River as an asset of the downtown is an opportunity that must be pursued—from orienting development and activity to ‘face’ the river to viewing the river as a connector of the city, rather than an east-west divider.”

That’s how Vandewalle & Associates put it in that 2007 strategy report. The consultant suggested continuing public and private investments to create an arts, cultural and entertainment district that opens housing, dining, entertainment and retail opportunities.

The city bought and in April demolished the Adams & Sons Roofing building on the river near Centerway. Monday’s agreement to buy that downtown office building clears the way for another significant change. These are incremental steps and sensible public investments.

If Janesville’s downtown redevelopment is to progress the way proponents desire, momentum could be building toward a makeover that leaves tomorrow’s riverfront looking nothing like it does today.

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