404 Franklin St. Photo courtesy of Trulia

Damakant Jayshi

The Wausau Plan Commission on Wednesday rejected a request from the Woodson YMCA to demolish a former church building on Franklin Street for a parking lot dedicated to its senior activity center, The Landing, but the fate of the building lies with the City Council.

City staff recommended the Plan Commission reject amending the zoning code to allow the YMCA to raze the former First Church Christ Scientist, 404 Franklin St, to make way for additional parking. The proposal drew multiple letters to the editor and mixed reviews from speakers during Wednesday’s Public Hearing.

Ultimately, no member of the Plan Commission voted in favor of amending the code, which would have added a net 19 parking spots. The YMCA purchased the property, which already has 10 parking spots, several years ago.

YMCA Chief Executive Officer Bryan Bailey told Commissioners The Landing now boasts nearly 5,700 members.

During the public hearing held to discuss the zoning change to allow the construction of the parking lot, speakers were split, with some questioning the numbers. Generating just 19 new spots for a space catering to thousands did not sit well with some.

Before the public hearing and during the discussion by commission members, City Planner Brad Lenz said that the item before the commission was to consider the zoning change and said the two issues – the proposed expansion of The Landing at the YMCA and the constriction of the parking lot – were being conflated. Those are separate parcels, with separate codes, he said.

In his memo to the Plan Commission, Lenz said the former church building is bordered on three sides by two different local historic districts – Andrew Warren and the Downtown Historic District. It is also located directly south of the Cyrus Yawkey House, which is a local and national historic landmark.

In their memo, city staff suggested the YMCA could and should look for alternatives, especially on the west side of the building since adding a surface parking lot does not fit well with the city’s zoning codes, its Comprehensive Plan, and the general urban planning principles.

Lenz said city staff is not opposed to expanding the senior center but are not comfortable with additional surface parking in an area that should be teeming with people and activities.

The city planner said that the 20-odd letters they received after the meeting packet went out was roughly split in half, but some in favor spoke specifically about expanding The Landing.

Replying to a question from Wausau Pilot & Review, Lenz denied that he canvassed the area door to door but said that he believed YMCA officials reached out to neighbors. “I did meet with one of the neighbors at city hall who requested a meeting with me to answer their questions,” he said.

Bailey, during the public hearing, said the YMCA did reach out to the Marathon County Historical Society and neighbors on the east side who were initially supportive of the project, but not anymore.

Bailey focused more of his remarks on The Landing’s activity and its growing membership – not part of the agenda on Wednesday’s meeting – and said the parking lot was an integral part of expansion plans. He pointed out that the (church) building sat for sale for a long time until the YCMA bought it.

He also pressured the Plan Commission by saying they should be mindful of the message they were sending by voting against growth in the downtown and by denying accessible parking lot to seniors. He said suggestions to explore alternatives have not been workable.

One senior citizen, who said he recently had surgery, pointed out that the parking lot would help him reach The Landing without having to walk a lot.

The Dwight and Linda Davis Foundation helped fund the initial construction of The Landing. The foundation’s executive director, Jeff Stubbe, said no public money is involved but the foundation’s support is conditional, that the expansion needs to be accompanied by a parking lot. He also said they are not insisting the parking lot has to be on the site discussed, but that the building posed the best available alternative.

Bill Bertram, a board member of Marathon County Historical Society supported the plan, saying it was a win-win for all involved.

But David Burke, who has a business on Franklin Street, criticized the plan even though he said YMCA has been a good neighbor and supports the community.

“I got a little bit of a problem with where we are going with 5,600 people in 29 parking spaces,” Burke said. “I can’t think of better odds to join a lottery for. Good heavens!”

Christine Martens, who is a member of Wausau Historic Preservation Commission asked the Plan Commission to vote against proposal, pointing out the idea was short-sighted, given exponential growth of The Landing and a proposal that added just 29 parking spaces. She said the church building is historic in nature. The property is not on the list of historic landmarks.

Three of the four city alders who addressed the public hearing opposed the proposal.

Tom Kilian, who represents Dist. 3 where the Franklin St. property resides, said he received a lot of concerns from his constituents and asked the commission to follow the recommendation of the city’s planning staff.

Similarly, Alder Gary Gisselman, who has often spoken about preserving the city’s historic character and emphasized on saving its historic and culturally significant buildings, said the Plan Commission has to be mindful about ‘intrusions’ into neighborhoods. The building is culturally important, he said.

Alder Carol Lukens said the parking lot proposal is against the trend of what’s happening in other cities.

“An increasing number of cities are decreasing parking lots, not increasing them,” she said. Lukens also said parking lots take up living space, create impervious surfaces that are not good for groundwater and can be bad for the environment. She also pointed out to a letter to the editor of this newspaper by Jonathan Smith in which he lays out arguments against the proposed parking lot.

“When parking in front of or right next to the place you want to go downtown is prioritized above all else, it weakens the ties to everything around it,” Smith wrote. “It lengthens the distance between each thing worth walking to, leading to less sales, less tax revenue, and less interest in downtown.”

The only alder to support the proposal, Lou Larson, said this historical property belongs to YMCA. “There is no public money involved in it at all,” he said. “This is good for the community.”

But Wausau Water Works Commission member Jim Force also opposed the proposal, saying the parking lot will remain unsupervised and thus undercut YMCA’s argument for expansion of The Landing.

Plan Commission member George Bornemann said that the issue before the commission is just the land use issue for a specific parcel of property and not the expansion of The Landing. “I am hesitant to approve it simply because it doesn’t agree with the Comprehensive Plan.”

During the vote, not a single commission member approved the request. But Mayor Katie Rosenberg said the discussion does not end at the Plan Commission. “No matter what we decide here, it goes to the City Council on March 12.”