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Janesville’s former General Motors plant site stands mostly empty. Its owner, Commercial Development Company, is seeking the city’s approval of a plan to redevelop it for future use.

JANESVILLE

The city of Janesville now has a basic roadmap of how owners of the former General Motors site might redevelop the property.

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It might take weeks or months of fine tuning in the hands of city planners and the city’s plan commission, but Commercial Development Company has given the city a preliminary plan of how redevelopment might roll forward on the 260-acre site it is now calling Centennial Industrial Park.

Commercial Development Company, a St. Louis firm that bought the site in 2018, has mostly cleared nearly 5 million square feet of former auto plant buildings from the site. In tandem with ongoing environmental cleanup of the site, Commercial Development is seeking clearance from the city’s plan commission for a planned-unit development proposal that the company and city staff say would create a “flexible” strategy for future redevelopment.

The plan commission Monday set a Dec. 16 public hearing to review the planned-unit proposal.

In a 30-page report, Commercial Development shows initial plans to divide the site—the largest industrial redevelopment site in the city’s history—into 12 parcels ranging in size from 7 to 45 acres.

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Most of the parcels, according to the report, would be earmarked for development of multiple midsize industrial facilities.

But the plan, as Commercial Development earlier had suggested might be the case, designates some land on the north and south end of the former GM site—about 35 acres in total—as “mixed use.” It is a sort of combination zoning that could allow light or specialized industry, convenience stores, restaurants, office space or, potentially, new housing.

Commercial Development’s report has been in the works for about a year, and it was recently submitted to city planners under a provision in the city’s zoning code that requires developers or property owners to provide preliminary plans for redevelopment sites.

Commercial Development’s strategy would operate under a dual process: First, the city’s plan commission would OK a sweeping, planned-unit development that would lay out a framework for future redevelopment of the GM site.

The plan commission first requires a public hearing on Commercial Development’s plan. From there, the commission must approve any changes it might require before the plan can be approved and put in place.

Later, city staff, the plan commission and the city council would review any individual redevelopment projects at the GM site under guidelines laid out in the planned-unit development.

The city in 2017 blanketed the entire GM site as an overlay district, a protective zoning designation that the city said in a memo would allow redevelopment in “a manner consistent with the needs and best interests of the community.”

Under the city’s rules, redevelopment of overlay districts requires an owner or developer to present the plan as a planned-unit development.

Planned-unit developments, sometimes used for development of large tracts of housing, allow municipalities the discretion to override certain zoning codes for specific projects without having to rewrite entire city ordinances.

In this case, the city’s baseline rules for redevelopment of the former GM site would gear the site for projects that are “less intensive” than typically would be allowed under zoning that has governed the GM site since its use as an auto plant, according to Commercial Development’s report.

Commercial Development’s plan is to gear redevelopment toward use of existing utilities, infrastructure and large-scale railroad infrastructure on the site that one if not two private railroad companies plan to further enhance.

In the report, Commercial Development suggested some types of industrial redevelopment for which the site would be best suited, including light manufacturing, warehousing and distribution, material testing, research and development, chemical manufacturing, “controlled outdoor storage,” and railroad freight terminals.

In the new report, Commercial Development indicates it wants to reuse existing concrete slabs that cover about one-third of the 115-acre site. The slabs are 8 inches thick over top of a network of deep columns. Commercial Development said the slabs could be reused with minimum excavation and would “provide a solid footing for new development.”

According to a September letter from Commercial Development to the city, Commercial Development is in the midst of forming an environmental remediation plan with the state Department of Natural Resources for the main GM plant site.

Part of that plan would be to determine whether Commercial Development can or should leave foundations for future use and as an environmental control to deal with any contamination in the soil.

In the report unveiled last week, Commercial Development said its goal is to earn DNR environmental clearance of the site by the end of 2020.

Commercial Development lists itself as a “responsible party” for any necessary environmental remediation at the site, but the report also indicates “subsequent owners” of the site would be considered responsible for remaining cleanup.

The report also designates General Motors, which operated the site for nearly 100 years, as the “identified causer” of environmental contamination at the site. The report indicates GM remains a “responsible party” at the site.

According to a 2017 Gazette analysis, Commercial Development has had a history of selling off some post-industrial properties the company has bought and cleaned up, leaving the properties for others to redevelop.

City Manager Mark Freitag told The Gazette in November it’s possible Commercial Development could take an active role in redeveloping the former GM property, but it’s also possible Commercial Development could sell some or all of the site to another owner or owners who might later redevelop it.

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