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Posted: March 13, 2014 Haymarket Plaza plan would turn parking lot into gathering space

 By Blythe Wachter Courtesy Leader-Telegram



People's ideas for the 1.5-acre Haymarket Plaza site range from a pedestrian/bike bridge across the Eau Claire River to businesses with outdoor seating to a bike path connecting to downtown.

Eau Claire city and development officials unveiled a plan to turn a downtown Eau Claire parking lot into a community gathering place Tuesday night at Volume One, 205 N. Dewey St.

Chris Straight, a senior planner with the West Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, summarized a report on the envisioned plaza at Graham Avenue and Eau Claire Street, just south of where the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers meet.

For more than a decade community plans have identified the parking lot on the opposite bank of the Eau Claire River from Phoenix Park as a future park or plaza. The commission partnered with the city in a privately funded project to obtain community input on uses of the site and its role in the larger community.

The commission incorporated ideas from two community meetings and a survey in its report. Among the recommendations:

  • The theme, design, and use of Haymarket Plaza should reflect and feature the rivers.
  • The plaza would serve as a centralized meeting place and a hub of bike and pedestrian traffic for downtown.
  • It should be a "nighttime park." Amenities such as outdoor fire pits and a lighted gateway and pavement and programming should encourage nighttime and all-season use.
  • It should balance quiet places to sit with a more active area.
  • The design, landscaping and amenities should be compatible with Phoenix Park, but the primary uses and feel of the plaza should be different. "This shouldn't be Phoenix Park," Straight said.

Some participants suggested specific ideas for the plaza, such as art that reuses materials from surrounding historic buildings, a large "splash park-style" fountain area and a permanent, lighted sculptural piece extending across the river.

Bill Benson of Eau Claire, a UW-Eau Claire professor emeritus of art and design, said two words sum up his vision for the plaza: "Simple and elegant. Not a miniature Disney World, thank you."

He encouraged unblocked views of the rivers and areas with shade for hot days.

Artist Kristen Berger of Eau Claire said the plaza area is a "beautiful spot" that could be a focal point of the community.

The mother of two young children, she would like a pedestrian-friendly riverfront trail going to Phoenix Park from the Grand Avenue bridge.

The plaza project is "a vision that could be incorporated in our capital improvement plan," City Manger Russell Van Gompel said during Tuesday afternoon's City Council meeting.

But he noted the city is not bound by the group's designs. Any financial commitment to create a plaza at the site would need to be discussed at meetings about the city's future budgets, he said.

For several years - even before the controversial Confluence Project first was proposed in May 2012 - the city has allocated about $2.6 million in its budget for future improvements to the South Barstow Street downtown area.

City Council President Kerry Kincaid said while the council is working on its budget for 2015, "we could definitely start allocating funds for what might be the first improvements."

The fall of 2015 would be a viable date for the beginning of some physical improvements at the site, she said.

She previously had said the plaza project needs to be considered "in relationship to the greater downtown area," regardless of whether the entire Confluence Project becomes a reality.

The plaza would be located between proposed buildings for the $77.2 million Confluence Project.

That project includes a three-theater arts center, student housing, commercial space for restaurants or shops and underground parking.

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