Our Views: Graffts' plan could build downtown excitement

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

If the Grafft family can pull off makeover plans for the historic building at 34 S. Main St., they could create a cornerstone to Janesville’s grand vision for downtown redevelopment, particularly in the river block between Court and Milwaukee streets.

Rock County Appliance filled the building’s first floor for decades before closing last year.

Britten Grafft, vice president of Certified Parts, which bought the building in December, says renovations would retain first-floor retail space but overhaul the storied second and third floors. The upper floors once were home to a Masonic lodge and a church, where Methodists worshiped for nearly 40 years before the church closed in 1905. Filling the former sanctuary would be a banquet hall for weddings, plays and other events.

Crucial to the plans is an addition on the west, facing the river. It would replace the loading dock with an elevator and grand entrance. Balconies on the second and third floors would need easements because they would dangle over the right-of-way that runs behind the building.

Also key would be federal and state tax credits available for remodeling and reusing historic buildings. At a time when elected officials in Madison seemingly can’t agree on what time it is, it was great to see bipartisan support for restoring the state’s tax credits. The credits were such a successful economic development tool that they generated $35 million in tax breaks, far beyond projections of $4 million. That prompted Gov. Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to place a moratorium on the credit for three weeks until officials resolved concerns about its impact on the state’s taxes and budget.

Imagine how this architecturally intriguing building at Main and Court streets could become a focal point of downtown redevelopment: In a couple of years, that ugly parking plaza masking the river on that block will be gone. Its removal would open the waterway as an attraction. City planners propose a town square on the properties across the river from the Graffts’ building. A planned pedestrian bridge could encourage users of the Grafft building to stroll over and spend time at that square.

The Graffts’ plan could be another momentum builder for downtown’s overhaul. It was good to see the city plan commission unanimously support the easements at Monday’s meeting. It was also good to see Commissioner George Brunner, a former councilman, express excitement about the project but also push for a timeline.

The Grafft family owns many downtown properties. Among them are the historic Monterey Hotel a few blocks west of the river and the property next door that holds what’s left of the former Park Place Theater. Nearly two decades after Britten’s father, Jim, bought the 1920s Art Deco hotel at an auction, the building deteriorates while many residents and city officials grow more impatient awaiting renovations.

Sure, the Graffts could curry much favor with residents and fellow business owners by jump-starting long-delayed plans to convert the hotel into apartments. It’s understandable, however, why the family instead is focusing on speedy remodeling of the former appliance building in hopes it can be completed by next June. This proposal would embrace the river just as a consultant urged the city in its 2007 downtown vision and strategy plan.

“To have a space like this would meld perfectly with big-city capital initiatives downtown—the city’s riverfront and town square plan,” Britten Grafft said in Tuesday’s Gazette. “It could really be a space embraced.”

If the Graffts complete this plan in a reasonable timeframe, they could be embraced, as well. In this case, they would deserve much credit.

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