Our Views: Riverfront grant is good for city of Janesville

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Friday, September 20, 2013

Critics and cynics likely greeted with disdain Monday's news that Janesville has captured a $200,000 grant to study the downtown riverfront.

Sure, it's federal money, but they are still tax dollars, these folks might argue. Didn't the city pay for a big study a few years ago and then let the document collect dust? Downtown is dead; let it rest in peace.

Such sentiments are simplistic, narrow-minded and unfair, especially to those doing business downtown.

Yes, the grant is tax money, but while the 2007 study took a broad look at downtown, this one will focus on the Rock River. It comes at a good time, as the city contemplates its future after the expected 2015 removal of the crumbling parking plaza over the river.

Besides, the city has taken steps that Vandewalle & Associates suggested six years ago. It has bought riverfront properties when they've become available. Two of the most significant and recent are the former Plaza Furniture store and Adams & Sons Roofing and vacant lots north of Centerway. Even before the Adams purchase, the city had accumulated 75 percent of river properties in Janesville.

Also, in 2010 the city opened a $4 million parking ramp off Parker Drive. This year, it rebuilt River Street to make it an attractive downtown gateway. Though such projects are not identical to Vandewalle's recommendations, they follow the consultant's suggestions.

Vandewalle chastised Janesville for a “wasted opportunity” for turning its back to the river instead of embracing it. The consultant encouraged reorienting and redeveloping properties to face the river and provide opportunities for housing, restaurants, entertainment and retail, with a particular emphasis on recreational users such as bicyclists and boaters.

The study came just before the economy tanked, and the city still struggles to keep streets in good repair, say nothing about investing in downtown. Vandewalle recommended a Business Improvement District, but property owners twice voted against that taxing authority, scuttling funds for further projects.

Good models for waterfront redevelopment exist. Vandewalle suggested looking no farther than Kenosha, Racine or Beloit for examples. Carl Weber, the city's public works director, worked in Green Bay when it worked with the private sector to build an appealing “City Deck.” The Vision 2020 section that The Gazette put out in April explored the idea of creating a whitewater destination for kayakers and canoeists like in Charles City, Iowa.

Vandewalle also urged expanding the successful downtown Janesville Farmers Market into a year-round indoor market that incubates food service start-up vendors and restaurants and offers customers taste samples. Think Oxbow Public Market in Napa, Calif., or the Granville Island Public Market in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Much private investment will be needed to augment limited public dollars. As Forward Janesville's John Beckord has suggested, however, “money follows good ideas.”

Downtown needs good ideas specific to riverfront redevelopment. Where are the best spots to replace parking lost when the plaza is gone? Should parking be on the river, perhaps on the Plaza Furniture site, or a block or so away as Vandewalle advised? Should the city remove some river walls to boost water access? Can it afford a pedestrian bridge or two and trail additions to create a circle using both riverbanks? Are a band shell and a splash park worth building? Is there hope for a marina north of the Centerway Dam and for whitewater enthusiasts?

With the parking plaza's approaching demise, Janesville needs solid information about what's viable and what's not. As our community reinvents itself in this post-General Motors economy, it cannot afford to let this new analysis—or its riverfront—go to waste.

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