Water Street retains three-floor limit

Story by Ashley Hofer

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After the Eau Claire City Council’s Jan. 26 decision to keep the current three-story height limit on Water Street buildings, students and community members remain split over the issue.

Under the original proposal by the city Plan Commission, a person could apply to the city to construct a building of four stories in height, said Thomas Kemp, a member of the Eau Claire City Council and an economics professor at UW-Eau Claire. The council struck that portion of the proposal, he said, making three stories the maximum under any conditions.

The possibility of student housing complexes on Water Street had been proposed, Kemp said, adding it was his understanding that allowing buildings a fourth story would help make student housing on Water Street “more viable.”

Kemp said many concerns raised by the plan commission and the council were related to possible parking and emergency access problems a building of such size could create.

“These are the things one doesn’t conventionally think of when one thinks of a building,” Kemp said. “But the bigger the building gets, the more important the peripheries become.”

Senior Emily Wievel said she could see the pros and cons of the decision.

“I see the point as Water Street is a small area and you can’t expand outward,” she said. “But I think it would change the atmosphere and be out of place.”

Wievel, who said she lives near Water Street, said she saw the advantages of a student apartment complex close to campus, but felt it would impact the area in a negative way

“It would feel like a bigger city,” she said.

Others in the area felt more decidedly about the proposal. An online petition was created to help show this disagreement. Collecting more than 480 signatures, it stated reasons for opposition as:

  • Traffic congestion and parking issues
  • Students’ preference of single family houses over apartment complexes
  • Private dormitory security problems
  • Preserving the historicalness of the area

Chase Collins of Caron Campus Area Housing said he was satisfied with the outcome of the vote.

“We were definitely against anything larger than three stories,” he said. “Four stories is unnecessary.”

Collins, who said he had been involved with the proposal for about six months, said the main issues were possibly ruining the historical aspect of Water Street and about the problems associated with an increase in density. He said the three-story maximum has been in place for about 25 years and also felt there was room for future development that didn’t involve going any further upward.

But others disagreed. John Mogensen of Investment Realty said the council’s decision to stay with the current height constraint minimizes possibilities for Eau Claire.

“I think the decision is short-sighted,” he said. “It limits options for future growth.”

Mogensen said under the conditions of the proposal, all potential construction projects of more than four stories would have needed to meet certain criteria. Only the projects that addressed the major issues, such as planning for adequate parking and matching the style of the area, would be approved, he said. With the continuation of the three-story limit, such projects are not even a possibility now, Mogensen said.

Senior Aaron Brewster also said he supported the proposal for allowing taller buildings – if they were well designed for the area and met the requirements. Brewster said he feels such buildings could help downtown Eau Claire economically.

“The population density isn’t what it could be,” he said. “We have an opportunity to increase the density and bring more people to these areas.”

Student-oriented apartment complexes would be a good for the area and give students not only more options, but better ones, Brewster said.

“Part of the problem with the rental climate is that we don’t have enough competition,” he said.

Many of the opponents of the idea were landlords, Mogensen said, adding more options and opportunities should be welcome.

“It’s unfortunate that you can stop competition because you don’t agree with it,” he said.

Kemp said he believes the height of buildings on Water Street will again be an issue for Eau Claire in the future.

“I don’t see it happening in the next five years, but as Eau Claire continues to grow and expand, it’s almost certain that taller buildings will be more prominent in the rough city center,” Kemp said. “At that time, a future council could very likely reverse the decision. At this time, three stories is what makes the most sense for Water Street.”

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