Some predict need for parking, others say city should change
JANESVILLE--A meeting Monday was supposed to center on a new study on the availability of downtown parking. But statements from downtown business people who insisted they need more close parking grew into a debate about whether residents have the will to change their city.
The city plans to demolish its parking plaza above the Rock River and its 219 parking spots by about 2016, and staff is creating a plan so the community is prepared with a redevelopment plan.
At 75 percent occupancy, the study shows the downtown has adequate parking now and even as occupancy grows if customers are willing to walk about two blocks.
Replacement parking likely would be found for many in the Parker Drive parking ramp about a block away from the existing plaza.
Duane Cherek, a city planner, said in an earlier interview that the redevelopment efforts might mean a change in culture for residents who resist walking any distance downtown. He said people in Madison would be happy to find free parking even four blocks away.
But resident Ed Spenske said the only way to develop the downtown is to create convenient parking.
“I've lived here all my life, and Janesville is by no means a forward-thinking community,” he said. “We're always behind the curve. We're (more) reactive than proactive. We don't look to the future.”
A representative from the downtown Janesville Athletic Club and downtown building manager Ed Pulliam worried their customers would not walk the additional block.
“I submit to you, as a longtime manager of the Janesville Mall, that customers will not walk that,” Pulliam said.
"I submit to you, this is not Madison … This is a smaller city, and the mindset of both the employees of the businesses and the customers, the clients, is different, he added. "I'm glad to see city staff thinks they can engineer a cultural change, but I don't have the confidence in them they have in themselves.”
Patrick McDonald, though, a downtown attorney, differed in his opinion. He said the plaza might have been necessary when it was built in the 1960s, but there are fewer businesses now downtown and there is more parking.
“I think it is an attitude problem,” McDonald said. “We are a different city than we were, and I do think people's attitudes will change. I'm an optimist. I think people will walk a block and a half, two blocks, to get to what they want, as has been proven by JPAC (the Janesville Performing Arts Center.)”
Joni Bozart, owner of Carousel Consignments, agreed parking will get tighter when the plaza comes down.
But, “What's your solution?” she asked Pulliam.
Pulliam said he didn't have one, although he noted the historic building that most recently housed Rock County Appliance is vacant and that the city owns the former Plaza Furniture store along the west riverfront.
Carl Weber, public works director, said other cities have used such amenities as riverfronts and historic buildings to make their downtowns attractive rather than building more parking.
The first thing Janesville needs to do is “take the lid off the top” of the river so the water is exposed, he said. Then the city should improve its walkways and provide recreation spots along the river and access for small boats, he said.
“Those are the kind of things that have attracted folks in downtown Green Bay, where my experience is,” Weber said. “Where there was nothing but parking spots along the river, now there are all sorts of restaurants (and) office space on the river fronting the river.
“They are taking advantage of (the river,)” he said.
People will find places to park to get to services they want, he said.
“We don't know what the answers are,” Weber said.
But creative people must work together to balance the historic buildings, views of the river, and security issues, he said.
“Don't waste your energy listening to the naysayers,” Weber said, noting other communities have successfully redeveloped their downtowns.
“We ought to have enough pride in ourselves in this community to know we can have a vibrant and active downtown, and it doesn't have to look like a mall,” Weber said.
“I think there's a lot of people in this community who want things to be better, who want quality of life," he said. "Let's try to provide it.”