By Shereen Siewert

Wausau’s Economic Development Committee this week reviewed starkly different proposals to redevelop city-owned property, one that would raze the building to retain a better downtown view and the other that would create dozens of affordable apartments.

Project plans for the property, at 415 S. First Ave. and 401 S. First Ave., have twice been scuttled since Wausau acquired the land. City leaders in September 2016 purchased the West Side Battery property for $200,000 using a loan made by the Judd S. Alexander Foundation. The adjoining parcel, the former home of L&S Printing, was sold to the city in 2014 for $190,000, also with a loan from the Judd S. Alexander Foundation.

Chuck Ghidorzi, speaking for Wausau Opportunity Zone, presented their group vision to raze the existing buildings to either pave the way for a building with a smaller footprint or leave the area open to create a “sense of arrival” for travelers as they reach downtown Wausau.

WOZ is asking to acquire the property from the city by placing a $50,000 deposit on the land, money that would be returned after the mall property transfer is complete.

Dist. 3 Alderman Tom Kilian asked Ghidorzi whether WOZ would be willing to pay the city the $390,000 that was spent by taxpayers acquiring the land, but the answer was essentially ‘no.’

“We feel the value of the exchange of the land and the mall is equivalent into what the city put into it,” Ghidorzi replied, pointing to the planned mall redevelopment.

The alternate proposal discussed this week came from Gorman & Co., LLC, the same group that is undergoing a $20 million historic rehabilitation of the Landmark Apartments in downtown Wausau. Trent Claybaugh, on behalf of Gorman, presented their vision for the Westside Battery Lofts, which would create 50 units of affordable housing in a four-story building on the site.

Gorman would pay Wausau $100,000 for the parcel contingent upon an environmental investigation for the project, which would generate roughly $2.23 million in annual tax revenue base for the city after completion.

Claybaugh pointed to the city’s 2017 comprehensive plan that showed a greater number of affordable housing units are necessary in the community, particularly near downtown. On that particular census tract, about 54% of households are considered rent-burdened, spending more than 30% of their income on rent, with a rental vacancy of 0%

The 50 units would have monthly rent ranging from $375 to $988, with one three-bedroom unit at $1,142 per month and would be income-restricted

The $14.25 million project would rely on a combination of federal and state tax credits and other funding sources. Of that, Claybaugh identified a funding gap of about $1.6 million, which could be largely offset by neighborhood investment funds. If those funds were not available, the gap funding could come from a mix of program funding that could be arranged with the city.

Rendering of apartment complex proposed in November 2021 by Gorman & Co.

If chosen, the development would have 52 underground parking spots, but Gorman is also exploring options for additional parking spaces for some of the larger units, Claybaugh said.

No decisions have yet been made, as no closed session was agendized for the Nov. 2 Economic Development Committee meeting.

Dist. 7 Alder Lisa Rasmussen said though she could see the aesthetic aspect of knocking down the current building and waiting. But that aside, Rasmussen emphasized that the Committee has long discussed the need for more affordable housing. She also said the city should seize opportunities as they arise, and balked at the idea that a building would mar the view into downtown Wausau.

“We have to focus on quality projects when they show themselves,” Rasmussen said. “What we need in downtown is for people to live there. People of all income levels…who contribute to the local economy.”

Rasmussen also pointed out the challenges with the property, which sits along a railroad track on a one-way street.

“I don’t feel like we’re ready to make a decision on either proposal,” Rasmussen said. “Regardless of what choice we make there will be a positive outcome.”

Rasmussen also pushed back on the idea that the parcel should be tied to the mall deal with WOZ.

“It’s difficult now to suck that project into West Side Battery,” she said.

City Council President Becky McElhaney said the community has been asking for more affordable housing for some time. Gorman would need a response before early December in order to apply for tax credits before the deadline. The Committee will review the requests Nov. 10 before recommending one for full council approval.