Rebirth of Fox River waterways

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New North communities finding continued development success on the banks of the Fox River

Story by Jeffrey Decker

The Fox River’s value to the region cannot be understated.

Its ecology, beauty and history are embraced by development teams that depend on public support and promote public access. The river is cleaner and healthier than it’s been in generations. What was industry’s footprint can be luscious waterfront that doesn’t stay vacant very long. Railroad tracks become regional trails as riverwalks and park improvements from Oshkosh to Green Bay enhance local pride and appreciation of the entire watershed.

By 2017 the last of the river’s locks will be open to allow boats to traverse the lower Fox River in one trip. Today, a boater could charter a course from Lake Butte des Morts upriver as far as Little Chute.

Oshkosh

New docks decorate much of the river’s north shore through the city as one feature of the Riverwalk, which in 2013 connected the Leach Amphitheater at the mouth of the river to the 44-mile long Wiouwash trail.

Just west of Wisconsin Avenue a former industrial site next to Carl Steiger Park now celebrates architecture as the new University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Alumni Welcome and Conference Center. The facility features a patio, outdoor firepit and more than 16,000 square feet, including a 500-person ballroom with floor-to-ceiling windows.

To the east on the Riverwalk is the 2-year-old Rivers Apartments senior housing facility and the start of a new 80-unit upscale apartment building by Alliance Development.

Development of several vacant lots along the riverfront’s Marion Road corridor are part of a development plan, and City of Oshkosh Community Development Director Allen Davis has asked the city’s Redevelopment Authority and others to help draft a detailed long-term vision for the entire riverfront.

“If we’re going to show people what the future of the riverfront is, we have to show them a future that’s a lot more detailed than what we have today,” Davis explained. Land use and building design are just some of the targets for East Central Regional Planning, which granted 40 hours of consulting work to the city to develop a formal plan.

Development of the south shore is on a slower pace. A Riverwalk trail, lights and signs were installed in 2013 at William Steiger Park. The existing trail extends this summer, “with the pedestrian bridge extending from the west shore to the island and then to the east shore of the property,” explained Darlene Brandt, community development grant manager for the city. That small island will be part of the park and become accessible with new bathrooms being built this summer. But the entire south shore of the Riverwalk may take 10 years to complete.

Cleanup grants and development agreements are part of doing business along the Fox. The next downriver neighbor is a former door and window factory’s 27-acre site that was remediated in late 2013 before it sold for $800,000. A group of five private investors plan to start with four sets of condos near the island and its new bridge, and follow with mixed residential and commercial buildings on 6th Avenue away from the shore. In ten years or more, said co-developer Grant Schwab, at least 20 buildings with 528 living units could be built there.

“It’s a long-term project,” he notes.

The parcel across Oregon Street at the foot of the bridge across the Fox River will see groundbreaking this spring for the first of two three-story office buildings.

“We’re hoping to open by fall of this year,” Schwab said. Several banks have expressed interest in a location on 6th Avenue and the first to sign up will have it quickly, he adds.

Oshkosh is on the upswing, as Schwab sees it.

“There’s nowhere in downtown Appleton where they can get 27 acres downtown and then put it on a river,” he cheers. Momentum is strong, Schwab adds, since the renovation and 2013 grand re-opening of the Best Western Premier Waterfront Hotel and Convention Center. Its Ground Round restaurant’s patio features a large gas fire pit within arm’s reach of the Riverwalk.

At the mouth of the river is 21-acre Pioneer Island with a vacant restaurant and an outline of a demolished hotel. Out-of-state owners have no immediate plans for any development.

Menasha

In Menasha, the city’s Community Development Director Greg Keil is glad for a state Department of Natural Resources Stewardship Grant that will help fund construction this year on a trail through a new waterfront park. It will be 15-ft. wide strip along more than 1,000 feet of frontage of the former Gilbert Paper mill site.

“I expect we’ll be putting out for bids in May,” Keil said.

Developer Randy Stadtmueller of Stadtmueller & Associates said the two five-acre sites where Gilbert Paper formerly resided will see momentum from the new park. A 12,000-sq. ft. office building was built and occupied and then, “In late 2008 when the crash occurred, it really stopped development on that site,” Stadtmueller explained. The plan remains mixed-use.

Appleton

Chartering a boat further downriver into the canyon of Appleton, another former mill site on 10 acres between Lawe Street and Old Oneida Street includes the first of two completed projects: the 54-unit Landing at Eagle Flats apartment complex and the 70-unit Riverwalk Place, housing for seniors operated by the Appleton Housing Authority.

Stadtmueller indicated there are plans for several more buildings on that site and several locations nearby. He’s uncertain at this point when any will break ground.

“Its likely that they’ll tend to be residential but we’re hoping to get a mixed-use commercial and residential use for those sites,” he said, inviting public input at meetings scheduled for May. The site borders two river locks.

As the Fox flows northeast it soon passes under the College Avenue Bridge and by RiverHeath’s construction of what could eventually be a towering waterfront cluster offering 200 market-rate residential units.

“We’ve had a couple of town homes out there over the past few years,” said Mark Geall, principal for Tanesay Development. “The Evergreen building will be ready for occupancy in June.” Those 32 units and 10,000 square feet of retail space are already almost booked. “We’re still looking for a cafe,” he notes.

If all goes well, Tanesay will start on another 32 apartment units and 10,000 square feet of retail.

“We’ve got 16 acres out there and about a half mile of riverfront,” Geall said, and it’ all adjacent to 28-acre Telulah Park.

From his Chicago office, Appleton native Geall explained why he toured sites to develop in Green Bay but settled on Appleton. “The City of Appleton was very eager to create a (tax incremental finance district) and, with their rezoning, that probably tipped the scales.”

Appleton Community Development Director Karen Harkness sees synergy among developers. “They want to make sure their projects are complementary but they’re unique as well,” she said. Harkness hopes for see growth on eight acres across the College Avenue Bridge where a Foremost Farms dairy processing plant closed in 2003.

Heart of the Valley

The first step at the former NewPage mill in Kimberly is demolition. Stadtmueller – also involved with what’s now known as The Cedars at Kimberly – said they’ve completed the master plan for the property and will have specific project proposals in 2015. His team is serving as consultants on the 90-acre site and its 1.5 miles of river frontage.

“Changing the habits of using the river is a long-term proposition,” he said.

Yet another former paper mill – the Eagle Mill in Kaukauna – is on Stadtmueller’s list of projects in development, but this one keeps the historic 88,000-sq. ft. building intact and is poised to remake downtown. The city library is moving into the mill as the centerpiece of the Grand KaKalin project.

Programming Librarian Ashley Thiem-Menning said it just took one spark. “Ever since Randy Stadtmueller expressed interest in renovating that mill a lot of other companies have expressed interest in coming to that area.”

The second floor will be private offices, but all 23,000 square feet of the mill’s first floor will be the library, a welcome growth from Kaukauna Library’s current 10,000 square feet. The new library will include an outdoor reading garden, two scenic overlooks, and gaping skylights over limestone arches and massive wooden beams.

A special viewing balcony on Grand KaKalin will allow library patrons to see across the river to the eagle nesting area at 1,000 Islands State Conservancy.

A new trail will connect that conservancy to the new HydroPark, which takes its name from the hydroelectric power produced nearby. City of Kaukauna Community Development Director Bob Jakel said the park will be ready before the year ends.

“It’s a park that’s going to celebrate the history of the Fox Cities region, the history of the whole river system from Green Bay to Prairie du Chien,” he explained.

Just north of Veteran’s Bridge in Kaukauna, Stadtmueller is also developing a 5-acre site for mixed-use commercial and residential.

De Pere

Continuing by boat through the locks at Little Chute and De Pere will be possible later this year for the first time in two decades, but an invasive species cleaning station needs to open near Wrightstown in 2017 before anyone can boat the entire system.

Just before the Fox River Trail enters De Pere’s Voyageur Park, it runs into the new Riverwalk and Wildlife Viewing Pier. City of De Pere Parks Director Marty Kosobucki said the $3.5 million project finished in 2013 and has been a complete success.

A lock house on the island is finding new life as a coffee house after overcoming unforeseen plumbing concerns, said Fox-Wisconsin Heritage Parkway Interim Executive Director Candace Mortara.

“They had to go underneath the channel and connect it to city sewer and water.” The tenants haven’t determined a date when the coffee shop will open at this point.

Green Bay

As the Fox River Trail continues on that eastern shore past Heritage Hill and the Village of Allouez, City of Green Bay Economic Development Director Greg Filsram points just across Washington Street downtown to a $3 million expansion of the Meyer Theatre. The northeast corner is now seeing Prevea Health develop a clinic in commercial space at the ground level of the parking garage there.

The northwest corner of that busy intersection is back on the water, where developer Dermond Holdings of Milwaukee has an agreement with the city to build 107 market rate apartments, called the Metreau Apartments.

“It should begin in April this year,” said Filsram. “They’re hoping to be open in late spring 2015.”

It will border the City Deck, a wide walkway with 700 lineal feet of floating docks that finished construction last year and have made the downtown waterfront a celebrated destination. It passes right by the Children’s Museum of Green Bay and Hagemeister Park restaurant. Outdoor fire pits and live music keep it lively in summer, and in the winter there’s an ice skating rink.

Just downstream, right before the Main Street Bridge, City Deck Landing is under construction to offer 76 high-end apartments by March 2015, with 7,000 square feet of ground-level retail and one more fire pit.

From his Madison office, Tyler Warner of T. Wall Enterprises explained why they chose Green Bay for their development. It’s the city’s size, he said, and “it’s the amount of jobs coming downtown.”

Warner pointed to the 500 jobs expected at Schreiber Foods’ new headquarters just across Washington Street. The market supports 80 more units across the river and north a bit, Warner added, where portions of the former Bird’s Eye Cannery will see construction in 2015 of Larsen Green Residences.

Titletown Brewery, just behind Leicht Memorial Park from the river, is converting another former cannery building into a brewery capable of producing 40,000 barrels annually.

“We’re currently only doing a little under 2,000,” said president and founder Brent Weycker. Production is scheduled to ramp up to 5,000 barrels later this year, and eventually a rooftop beer garden will follow, Weycker said.

Just north of the City Deck, The Clarion Hotel is transforming into a Hampton that will face the river. It will connect to the new 30,000-sq. ft. addition to the KI Convention Center which began late in 2013.

The Foxy Lady yacht is docked near the bridge and offers tours up the river or out into the bay. Constant dredging keeps a channel clear through the shallow bay, and the last fill is just now being added to an island made of dredgings.

Renard Isle is being rounded off and just may become a park, if the Brown County Board of Supervisors decides to take ownership of an 850-ft. long stone causeway built to let trucks carry over fill. The kidney-shaped island has always been rather barren, but it could get a complete makeover as a park with a causeway that already cost $2.7 million to build. Director of Port and Resource Recovery Dean Haen is hoping it stays.

“We’re in the process of talking with the DNR about what would need to happen if that causeway stayed permanently,” Haen said.

Sitting just offshore from Bay Beach Amusement Park, Renard Isle is the last  waterfront property right at the end of the Fox River. Like all waterfront real estate, it’s in a really great location.

Jeffrey Decker is a business journalist and father based in Oshkosh.