Rezoned Wyalusing site makes way for apartments

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By Correne Martin

A request to rezone the former Wyalusing Academy property was granted by the Prairie du Chien Common Council Tuesday night, but not without dispute.

The council approved rezoning from low density residential to high density residential on a 6-1 vote, with Alderman Edward Hayes-Hall opposed, as Commonwealth Development Corporation, of Fond du Lac, hopes to redevelop the facility into an apartment complex. Hayes-Hall wanted to see the 14-acre property divided and only the developed portion rezoned, but his motion for such was never seconded. Alderman Ron Leys eventually proposed approval, which Jean Titlbach seconded, and the council passed.

Kevin McDonell, vice president of development for Commonwealth, gave an overview of the project during the public hearing. He said plans include 40 two- and three-bedroom apartment units (not subsidized) that would be rented for between $600 and $700 per month on average and targeted at seniors, young professionals and families. He estimated the renovation to cost $8 million and the timeline for construction would begin in the fall of 2016 and end one year later.

McDonell explained that Commonwealth Development started in 2001 and has developed 38 apartment projects across Wisconsin and the country, involving 1,500 units that are currently managed. He said the company has repurposed seven former school properties. “We have also never sold any of the projects we’ve developed,” he noted.

Currently, River to Valley Initiatives has accepted Commonwealth’s offer to purchase the property. At least 80 percent of the funding is expected to come from Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) tax credits and historic tax credits. The remainder would be privately financed.

“We will find out in April about the WHEDA tax credits,” McDonell stated. When he was questioned about why rezoning was necessary prior to obtaining financing, he said, “We need to have site control in order to qualify.”

“We have a 75 percent success rate on applications we’ve submitted (to WHEDA),” McDonell added, noting that Commonwealth’s success jumps to 90 percent when they’ve had to submit an application twice. “In the last three years, we’ve had a 100 percent success rate.”

Hayes-Hall wondered what the company would do if they don’t rent all of the units. “Are we going to be stuck with a building [we can’t utilize]?” he asked.

McDonell responded that Commonwealth presently has real estate holdings valued in excess of $136 million and, among those, 95 to 97 percent are occupied. “There is also a tremendous demand (for these types of apartments), we believe, based on other apartments available in the area,” he said. “We have a full-time property management team that does marketing to fill the units.”

When the council inquired about plans to maintain some of the building’s history, McDonell assured that the wood floors and exterior masonry would be preserved and that Commonwealth anticipates working with the state historic preservation office on restoration of the chapel. He said, oftentimes, the unique school characteristics remain a part of the apartments. For example, chalkboards can be used in common kitchen areas. Otherwise, he said the project would fully gut the facility.

“You might recognize some of the hallways but, at the end of the day, it’ll look like a whole new building,” McDonell said, adding that the boilers would be discontinued as each unit would have its own forced air unit. “We want to ensure this vacant building doesn’t become a blight and the historic facility remains an asset to the community.”

Furthermore, the council learned that the project has the potential to provide local construction jobs during renovation. “Projects like this usually support around 100 full-time construction jobs,” McDonell said.

City Administrator Aaron Kramer commented that Commonwealth would also pay property taxes to the city based on the income derived from the apartments. “Taxes are not received if the property remains undeveloped,” he advised.

In anticipation of Tuesday night’s contentious public hearing, Kramer and Mayor Dave Hemmer held a conference call with the city administrator in Ripon, where Commonwealth has one finished development and a second in the works.

“She said they couldn’t be happier,” the mayor stated.

Of the 30 or so citizens in attendance, three neighbors addressed the council and McDonell. Jan Koecke asked the council to only rezone the developed portion of the property and she raised the question of whether Section 8 tenants (i.e., mentally ill individuals, sex offenders) would be allowed to reside there. McDonell said a tenant must pass a full criminal background check before qualifying to rent an apartment from Commonwealth. Ted Finn had concerns about the impact of the project on the archaeological features of the site. Sara Rybarczyk also spoke about the potential property taxes involved.

Marina concerns
The state commercial and electrical building inspectors recently conducted an informal inspection of the Prairie du Chien Marina, with permission of the owners, Regal Marine Group. A number of building and electrical deficiencies were uncovered during the inspections.

“I was informed by Dennis Hampton (city building inspector) that some of these safety concerns were life threatening and that the inspectors recommended we file a complaint. The city’s responsibility is to protect the public safety of its citizens and guests,” City Attorney Lara Czajkowski Higgins stated. She explained that the move would authorize a full, formal state inspection. “This should help determine how we move forward with approving the lease (with Regal) in the coming months. It also assures we get an inspection at the quality we are looking for and from a neutral party.”

She added, the hope would be that the inspection and anticipated repairs could be complete prior to the coming boating season.

Dennis Regal spoke on behalf of the marina contractors. “Yes, I understand there’s some things wrong with the electrical. This was built in 1954. For the last 30 years, I’ve had a number of people come look and they’ve never had an issue,” he stated. “I would hope [repairs] wouldn’t have to be done in two weeks.”

His grandson, Jakob Regal, also addressed the council and said if there would be significant costs required for the repairs, Regal Marine Group would like the city to work with them on a longer term lease than just the one year it has granted the company most recently.

Fire siren activation
Steve Rickleff, of the Prairie du Chien Fire Department, requested the fire siren, which was abandoned in 1997 when the department moved to its current location, resume its daily activation as a form of testing. He said the siren would sound at noon and also upon tornadoes and other severe weather.

Alderwoman Jean Titlbach asked why it was necessary to be sounded at noon. She said she was contacted by numerous third shift workers who wondered if it could go off at 8 a.m. or 3 p.m., thus avoiding disruption of their sleep.

Rickleff responded by saying that train whistles sound throughout the day between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. and that the “noon whistle” was the tradition.

The full council approved the noon siren, 6-1, with Titlbach opposed.

Other business
•The pocket park at the corner of Blackhawk Avenue and Marquette Road was renamed Rotary Park in honor of the Rotary Club that maintained the flower pots along Marquette Road for many years prior to the highway’s reconstruction in 2014. The Rotary Club is looking into installing amenities such as a gazebo and benches in the park.

•Citizen and journalist Todd Crotty was sworn in as the new third district alderman, filling the vacancy left Dec. 31 by Kyle Kozelka. Crotty’s appointment was approved 6-1, with Leys opposed because he felt it would be a conflict of interest for a reporter to have access to closed session information. Crotty noted that WQPC’s station manager, Dan Moris, may start covering city council meetings moving forward.

•The council approved an agreement with the town of Prairie du Chien to light the Cliffwood Drive intersections. The town proposed paying to light the Cliffwood/County K intersection if the city agreed to do the same at the Cliffwood/Highway 35 intersection. Kramer said the cost would be about $1,150 for the city. The lighting would be LED, which could make grants available for the project.

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