The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.

The Spectator

Plan could displace housing for students

Plans to expand the Eau Claire County Courthouse and Law Enforcement Center are garnering criticism from nearby residents who say the county excluded them from important planning stages.

The county’s Space Needs Steering Committee has recommended two plans to the county board, both of which could lead to loss of housing, student and otherwise, between First and Second Avenues on Lake Street and on Ann Street within the next 10 years.

Further expansion in the next 50 years could spread county facilities into Grand and Third Avenues, displacing businesses like the Court’n House, 113 W. Grand Ave., and The Grand Avenue Caf‚, 205 E. Grand Ave.

One plan, which includes an on-site jail, could cost between $49 million and $51.5 million. The plan with an off-site jail ranges between $66 million and $67.5 million.

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“I’m disappointed the county didn’t invite the neighborhood association from the get-go,” said Marty Fischer-Blakeley of the Historic Randall Park Neighborhood Association.

Mel Erickson, director of planning and development for the county and a member of the committee, said the committee didn’t include members of the surrounding neighborhood from the beginning because it was unclear whether the county would expand its current facility or build at another location.

“At the time it was put together, we had no idea what the options might be,” he said.

With plans recommending the facility’s expansion, he said the county will broaden the committee’s representation, including members of the surrounding community, as well as those who work in relevant fields like architecture, engineering or banking.

“If it was something that affected the neighborhood, I would expect that we would select a neighborhood representative,” he said.

Law enforcement and court and government officials, Erickson said, comprise the committee recommending the expansion.

Jeff De Grave, a UW-Eau Claire associate lecturer of geography and anthropology and a member of the neighborhood association, rejected Erickson’s logic, saying the neighborhood has a stake in the courthouse expansion regardless of which plans the county accepts.

Additionally, he said all the people on the community are people who probably would rather retain the current facility.

Student Senator Matt Nelson, who is on the intergovernmental affairs committee, will introduce a resolution to Senate at tonight’s meeting. The resolution supports the need for a new facility, but calls for the county to establish a design that would preserve as much area housing as possible.

A lack of space for inmates, police, court functions, local government and secure parking are the main concerns the county has identified, Erickson said.

Public safety is also a concern, he said, with inmates and the general public coming in contact with one another in the current facility.

Fischer-Blakeley said the county should maximize its utilization of the land it currently owns. She also questioned the need for expansion.

“The public needs to know exactly why the existing system is broken,” she said. “We don’t see this.”

Whether the county is in need of a new or expanded facility should be decided through public referendum, she said, not by committee.

De Grave said he would rather see a new facility built in a non-residential area, referring to estimates that show the cost of a new facility being roughly $1 million more than the plan with an off-site jail.

The area where the courthouse and law enforcement center currently sits, he said, could transform into a residential area.

Expanding the courthouse, meanwhile, would threaten public safety by bringing more inmates into the area and deplete tax revenue by pushing residents out, De Grave said.

The County Board still must adopt one of the plans, and construction won’t begin until summer of 2009, according to a timeline the county has established.

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Plan could displace housing for students