River underused in downtown, residents say

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Gina Duwe
Thursday, January 30, 2014

JANESVILLE--Put a group of Janesville residents and business owners in a room to talk about redeveloping the downtown, and you'll hear several unsurprising themes.

The Rock River running through downtown is underused, the one-way streets create unnecessarily fast traffic and a desire for a grocery store all stood out as common threads during a public meeting Thursday night at Hedberg Public Library.

About 75 people gathered to kick off the efforts of the Downtown Revitalization Committee and city staff to develop a plan for six areas of downtown. The city is working with SAA Design Group of Madison, a landscape architecture planning and civic engineering firm.

“This is an action-oriented plan … We're not just going to say, 'Wouldn't it be nice if…' We're going to say, 'This is what you have to do to make it happen,'” said Ryan Garcia, economic development coordinator for the city.

The focus is on 240 acres stretching from Traxler Park south to the Jackson Street bridge—an area that has more than 4 miles of riverfront and one dam, said David Schreiber of SAA.

Attendees divided into four groups and spent 20 minutes at tables where they offered their opinions on these aspects of downtown: impressions, positive aspects, issues and ideas. Here's what they said:

—Impressions: Jobs were a big reason people ended up in Janesville, as well as family and the parks, safety and size of the community. Residents take visitors downtown for its restaurants, shopping and entertainment as well as the farmers market and bike trail.

Beautiful historic buildings, great selection of businesses, an underutilized river, traffic flow issues and untapped potential were all impressions suggested by residents.

—Positives: Aside from the river being the biggest asset, residents said activities and events were some of the most positive things in downtown. Parades, festivals and the farmers market all were mentioned repeatedly as well as the historic character of the buildings.

—Issues: Many wondered if there was a “real need” for Milwaukee and Court streets to be one-way, Schreiber said.

“A lot of people recognized that having that pair perhaps sends traffic through the middle of downtown unnecessarily and faster than it would need to. We heard a lot of creative ideas … on what to do with the streets,” he said, to make traffic flow in two directions.

Pedestrian safety and crosswalks also coincided, he said, along with safety issues related to the river. If you got in the river, “how would you get out?” he said.

Connectivity was stated repeatedly—the bike trails need to run seamlessly and pedestrian access across the river is an issue.

Many of the buildings along the river don't take advantage of the river frontage, many said. Industrial buildings also were identified as aesthetic issues.

—Action: The downtown needs activities for kids and younger generations. Many residents had concerns about getting young professionals to live downtown. Ideas included retail shops with residential units above and/or parking, a grocery store and more market-rate housing.

Park and river access was important, along with river recreation such as having a water-sports rental site.

Consultants are interviewing stakeholders, property owners and environmental experts and looking at the underlying environmental issues in the six areas, Schreiber said.

The city and SAA will work on the feasibility of the ideas gathered Thursday night and return with a public meeting in late April to debate the pros and cons of two to three options for each of the six sites, he said.

Those options will be narrowed down, and the goal is present a plan by October. Three other public meetings will be held.

Last updated: 8:33 pm Thursday, January 30, 2014

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