Future of parking plaza stirs debate
Many people might agree that a new plan to reinvigorate downtown Janesville offers plenty of good ideas.
Except for one thing: the suggestion to remove a strip of concrete worth $3 million over the Rock River.
Janesville’s parking plaza has spanned the river since 1963, giving downtown employees and customers a handy place to park. Some downtown business owners take issue with the idea of demolishing the plaza.
“I think it’s a gift to have parking outside the door to the building,” said Jackie Wood, co-owner of the Olde Towne Mall, at a recent meeting on the downtown plan.
The plan recommends that the city take out the plaza to open up the river, relocating the 285 lost parking spaces to new structures and lots.
At the meeting, Wood wondered why the plaza couldn’t be made more attractive. Others argued that the structure is sound and would be costly to demolish.
Rumors have circulated that the state Department of Natural Resources—and even city officials—wanted the plaza gone.
DNR seeks meeting
DNR and city officials confirm that they have not discussed the parking plaza.
However, Sue Josheff of the DNR in June sent a letter to City Manager Steve Sheiffer, asking for a meeting. She said she and Sheiffer have been playing “phone tag” since then.
Josheff said the DNR believes Janesville needs a permit for the plaza. The agency isn’t asking the city to remove the plaza immediately, she said.
Sheiffer said he would be happy to meet with the DNR. He said the city doesn’t intend to demolish the plaza.
“The city of Janesville doesn’t agree that we need a permit at all,” he said.
“Our position is that the parking structure is sound and will remain there for its life cycle. We have no intention of removing the parking plaza. It’s critical to downtown parking, and it would cost taxpayers $3 million to build parking.”
The DNR isn’t fond of parking structures over rivers.
They make rivers less navigable and mar the beauty of a resource that’s held in the public trust, Josheff said. Besides that, the dark shadows they cast aren’t good for fish.
The agency brought that philosophy to Beloit in the mid-1990s. Food producer Kerry Americas wanted to renovate a building that edged into the Rock River, which is under DNR jurisdiction. That building sat next to the city’s Rock River parking deck, a 1960s concrete structure between Grand Avenue and Mill Street.
Beloit didn’t have a permit for the deck, Josheff said.
In 1996, the city and DNR negotiated an agreement that the deck would come out by the end of 2007 or whenever it became unsafe. Later inspections revealed it needed major repairs, and the city closed off the unsafe parts.
The deck finally came down this summer.
“We had what I would call a lot of advance warning,” said Steve Gregg, Beloit assistant city manager. “Not only were we able to budget funds, we were able to identify areas to build parking.”
It cost Beloit a little more than $2 million to remove the plaza; the state paid $800,000 of that.
The Downtown Beloit Association was able to advocate on behalf of business owners and work with city staff before and during demolition, said Kathleen Braatz, the association’s executive director.
As a result, in 2005 the city built a 200-stall parking lot within a block of the deck and another 30-stall lot next to Kerry Americas, she said. More on-street parking was added on Grand Avenue.
The demolition presented plenty of parking challenges downtown. But the DBA monitored parking availability through a survey and local feedback, Braatz said. The city council eventually adopted some of the DBA’s recommendations.
“Partnering on solutions, solid planning efforts and continuous communication were very important to this project,” Braatz wrote in an e-mail to The Janesville Gazette. “It takes a big dose of patience during the construction phase, but in the end we have a very positive asset we can show off and use to encourage continued economic investment.
“Now that the deck is down … there is a sense of pride about the accessibility of the river. We hear people talking about how to maximize the river from their businesses.
“Being able to see the river adds a sense of something special at your front or back door, whereas before we all looked at concrete.”
Parking plaza facts
Age: The north portion is 44 years old, built in 1963. It was expanded to the south in 1965.
Length: 360 feet
Width: 220 feet
Parking spaces: 285
Maximum vehicle weight: 3 tons
Underneath: The structure is supported by concrete columns about 50 feet long and by end abutments, which are part of the original river wall constructed in the 1930s.
Repairs: The plaza has been repaired four times. In 1986, some girders were repaired along with sidewalks and new expansion joints. In 1989, the remaining girders were repaired, the pier caps were repaired, drains were added, and more sidewalks were fixed. In 2004, girders and pier caps were fixed where necessary. In 2005, repairs were made to the islands, and the walkway across the deck was added.
Source: City of Janesville