Downtown Janesville parking plaza's days are numbered
It's only a matter of when.
City officials and downtown businesses are working to reshape the discussion into one about a downtown that incorporates the Rock River rather than turning its back to the waterway.
"We've moved beyond the discussion and debate about whether the parking plaza should be removed," said Duane Cherek, Janesville's manager of planning services. "We've reached a new level where the discussion is, 'What do we want to do?'
"This has the potential to be a game changer for downtown Janesville. We have the opportunity to create a focal point for activity that really becomes a destination."
The parking deck was built in 1963 over the Rock River between Milwaukee and Court streets. Two years later, a second section was added closer to Court Street.
The plaza has become a focal point that's provided convenient downtown parking for nearly five decades.
But philosophies have changed.
Conventional wisdom now holds that a massive slab of concrete over a waterway is not a good idea, from neither environmental nor aesthetic perspectives.
"It used to be that a river was not considered an asset to the community," said Carl Weber, Janesville's public works director. "In the 1950s and '60s, they were considered open sores, the back door of the community.
"That attitude has changed, and they are now considered a major asset."
As downtown Janesville declined, study after study said the parking plaza must be sacrificed in the name of economic revitalization.
Not surprisingly, the idea met with resistance from downtown businesses who enjoyed the convenience of the parking deck for customers and employees.
Now, however, the state Department of Natural Resources is forcing the issue. It's told the city that it can do minimal maintenance on the deck, but it can't do anything to extend its life.
Studies indicate that the deck has five to 10 years left before it must be removed, Weber said.
Out in front
With the inevitable looming, Weber decided to start the discussion: What does the community want its downtown to look like once the parking deck is removed?
The city met with Forward Janesville and the Downtown Development Alliance, a group of downtown business owners that has traditionally favored the parking deck.
Dave Marshick, chairman of the downtown alliance, said his group has in turn met with downtown business owners, particularly those closest to the plaza.
"The sense we got was not, 'Oh my God! What are we going to do?'" Marshick said. "It was more like, 'This is going to happen, so let's do it right.'
"There's a sense that this can become a real positive for the downtown."
The parking plaza—historically the city's best-used parking structure—has about 285 parking spaces. About one-third of them are not over the river, Weber said.
Occupancy ranged from 82 percent in 2006 to 59 percent in 2011, he said, noting that the occupancy rate of all of the downtown parking areas was 37 percent last year.
Removing the deck, he said, would force the city to redirect parking to other areas.
Many of those spaces, he said, can be found in other city lots and the new parking ramp on Parker Drive.
"We have underutilized spaces," Weber said, noting that the top level of the new garage has been closed the last two winters because it isn't being used.
"We can make better use of our existing parking areas."
Weber said a compromise would keep some of the parking along the edges of the current deck while still making it available on an as-needed basis for special public uses.
Weber said it would be possible to retain some of the plaza's parking that is not over the river. Parking in those spaces, he said, could be prohibited when they're needed for public events or celebrations.
Marshick said the loss of parking has been the primary concern of downtown businesses. So, too, has been service access to the rear of businesses in the first block of South Main Street.
He agrees that parking is available in other areas, and it's not far away from the central downtown. He said the biggest struggle in convincing people to use it, however, is human nature: Closer is better.
A proactive approach to the removal of the parking plaza carries two benefits, Weber said.
First, it would allow the stakeholders to work together to come up with a redevelopment plan that addresses parking and provides the best public use of riverfront property.
Second, it would allow the city to apply for grants to help pay for the deck's removal and redevelopment of the area.
"If we took the plaza out tomorrow, we would have to pay for it all," Weber said, noting that the cost to remove a similar parking deck in Beloit cost more than $2 million.
A central theme, he said, would be to transform riverfront property into appealing places that make the downtown a destination.
"We'd like to make it a place where people want to live, work and play," he said.
Weber draws on his experience in Green Bay and its "City Deck," a public-private project designed to bring people in touch with the Fox River through boat docks, pedestrian walks, open spaces and stage areas.
"It's become the community's front porch," he said. "It's created all sorts of new opportunities downtown."
Weber said early discussions would help formulate a plan that could be supported in part by grants.
"There's not one program to cover it all," he said. "I foresee us agreeing on what we want to do about removing the plaza and reengineering the parking and then going to agencies to see if there's a piece that fits their program.
"Maybe it's something for business development, maybe there's something for riverfront redevelopment."
In Green Bay, the City Deck project layered seven or eight grants to offset costs, he said.
Weber and Cherek said they would approach the city council this spring with some preliminary thoughts on the removal of the plaza and redevelopment opportunities.
At this point, the plan is to retain parking in nearby areas on both sides of the river and investigate any other replacement parking that's needed.
Once the deck is removed, walkways and bikeways adjacent to the river would be enhanced, and a pedestrian bridge could cross the river.
Cherek said the Plaza Furniture building on River Street presents an opportunity for redevelopment as well. It is going out of business.
Staff will continue to get public ideas for ways to enhance enjoyment of the river and promote business and housing development opportunities.
"The whole idea is to get out in front of this and do so creatively," Weber said.
Fighting the DNR to rebuild the plaza would be futile, he said.
"We can probably get help from state and federal agencies in coming up with a solution to open the river back up, but we aren't going to get any money to replace it.
"This shouldn't be a funeral for the plaza. It's an opportunity for a new birth."
'The process is off to an excellent start'
As an owner of a downtown business that depends on Janesville's parking plaza, Jackie Wood is torn about the structure's future.
She sees the long-term benefits of removing of the parking plaza, but the potential for short-term problems weighs heavily on her mind.
"While I have my personal feelings about it, I have to think about my tenants," said Wood, an owner of the Olde Towne Mall on South Main Street.
"I've surveyed my tenants, and most said that if that parking can be replaced conveniently, they don't have a problem with it."
But if the replacement parking is not convenient, they'd probably move, she said, acknowledging that opinions differ on the definition of convenience.
In any parking plaza discussion, Wood remembers the position of Terry Campbell, her longtime friend and fellow downtown businessman. Before he died in 2008, Campbell renovated the old Woolworth's building into the Riverfront Center and was a champion for downtown revitalization.
"He would say that we all need to band together and oppose any effort to remove the deck, even if we had to chain ourselves to it," Wood said. "But now I sense a switch in perspective, a reality check."
That reality check comes from the state Department of Natural Resources, which has said the city is cannot do anything to extend the life of the parking plaza. It likely will be removed in the next five to 10 years.
Wood said she's thrilled the city is taking a proactive approach to the deck's removal. Opening up the river, she said, presents opportunities for an upscale redevelopment that would bring more people downtown.
"I really like what the city is doing, and (City Manager) Eric Levitt has put together a great staff," she said. "They're willing to listen to us—actually come to us and listen—before they start a plan.
"The idea is that we can go forward together. The process is off to an excellent start, and everyone working together is the key to the whole thing."
Mark Groshan owns the Janesville Athletic Center Express in the building that is owned by Carol Campbell, Terry's wife.
Groshan said finding reasonable replacement parking for his customers would be critical to him staying in business in downtown Janesville.
A large percentage of his downtown members use the parking plaza, and replacement parking across the street likely would present safety issues that he doesn't think his customers want to address.
One option that might work, he said, would be replacement parking at the current site of Plaza Furniture, which is going out of business. City officials said they are looking at the property as part of their riverfront acquisition plans.
Carol Campbell said parking for her tenants and their customers is paramount. She said it's difficult to discuss leases with tenants or potential renters when the only virtual certainty is that parking for a couple hundred vehicles is going to be relocated to points unknown.
"The city is going to have to look at alternatives, and I'm not sure a single street lot is going to do it," she said. "The city is probably going to have to buy land.
"It's a very big deal not to have adequate parking down there."
That said, Campbell said it's important for downtown businesses and their customers to expect a certain amount of walking.
"You go to any downtown, and people have to walk to their destinations," she said. "There's a certain joy in being in a downtown, and to a certain extent you just have to accept that walking is a part of it."