JANESVILLE

Patrons of downtown businesses wouldn’t necessarily be peering into street-level living rooms, but if the city moves forward on a new housing idea, the first floors in some storefronts could be partly converted to apartments.

The Janesville Historic Commission on Tuesday will hear more about an idea city planners have to ease a housing shortage—and attract more people who want to live downtown.

Planning Director Duane Cherek said city staff aims to bring to the city council a “minor” zoning change that would permit first-floor residential occupancy—apartments, essentially—inside storefronts in the downtown business district: the corridor of Milwaukee and Main streets.

The idea, he said, came out of a city housing summit last year that identified first-floor spaces in the central business district as an option for market-rate apartments.

Some downtown property owners already have renovated upper-floor spaces for apartments, but street-level apartments currently aren’t allowed.

Cherek said the renovation process would be fleshed out through a conditional-use protocol and would follow local and state fire code rules on access to entrances and exits.

“The intention is to maintain what we’ve been trying to promote and accomplish with downtown revitalization in terms of pedestrian walkability,” Cherek said. “We’ve crafted what’s a reasonable means to allow ground-floor occupancy, which maintains the integrity and authenticity of the downtown district.”

He believes a “limited” number of property owners would consider such apartments.

“We don’t expect this is going to be widespread, but it still provides another opportunity for those who have an underutilized building,” Cherek said.

City council member Sue Conley said Cherek earlier this month gave a presentation on first-floor apartments at a meeting of Downtown Janesville Inc., a nonprofit downtown stakeholders group.

Conley said group members seemed to prefer a “middle-of-the-road” approach to first-floor apartments in storefronts.

She said the proposal likely would limit the apartments to the “spine” of downtown’s business district—Milwaukee and Main streets and a few adjacent streets. That means only “30 to 40%” of downtown storefronts would be considered for street-level apartments, she said, and of those properties, only a fraction of property owners might float a proposal.

Tuesday’s historic commission discussion will be informational, giving city staff a chance to get feedback from the commission. It’s not a public hearing, and the commission will take no action, Cherek said.

A draft ordinance could go to the council next week, but it faces two public hearings before any final vote, Cherek said.

Commission member Jackie Wood said the commission has been interested in expanding a historic overlay on Courthouse Hill to parts of downtown to ensure that renewal projects protect the historic features of downtown commercial buildings.

She said some historic preservationists would not want to see apartment projects that dramatically alter buildings’ appearances.

“The main thing that saves (the proposal) for me is that, based on what I’ve heard, a storefront itself would have to remain commercial or retail,” Wood said. “Depending on the size of a building and how much is being used for a business, you could carve out a decent-size, first-floor apartment behind the store space.”

“You won’t be walking by along Main Street or Milwaukee Street and see some people sleeping behind a plate-glass window that used to be a retail store. That would be weird,” she said.

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