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Housing, hotels, planned for Sun Prairie explosion site

The Sun Prairie School District's Ashley Field undergoes a renovation and expansion on Dec. 19 in the wake of a massive gas explosion that leveled part of the city's downtown last year. City planners hope the project will tie the field more closely to the downtown as a sports and events venue. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

The Sun Prairie School District’s Ashley Field undergoes a renovation and expansion on Dec. 19 in the wake of a massive gas explosion that leveled part of the city’s downtown last year. City planners hope the project will tie the field more closely to the downtown as a sports and events venue. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

Wisconsin State Journal

SUN PRAIRIE, Wis. (AP) — A consultant’s proposal for the redevelopment of a section of downtown Sun Prairie severely damaged in a massive explosion last year calls for the construction of a place where residents and visitors can both live and play in hundreds of new residential units, a boutique hotel, tall buildings and a “Festival Street.”

Still to be seen, though, is just how city officials will turn their vision into reality and how open residents and property owners will be to the bolder proposals.

Some of the most-notable points of the 82-page plan, from the Chicago-based Lakota Group, call for a 60- to 70-room, four-story hotel on the northwest corner of Main and Bristol streets. Also proposed is a four- to five-story mixed-use project, directly across Main, with 70 upper-story residential units, 7,000 square feet of ground-floor commercial space and parking.

Abutting the hotel to the west would be a three-story mixed-use project with about 20 residential units, 6,500 square feet of commercial space and 30 parking spaces, according to the plan’s “preferred concept.”

Those projects would be at the center of the site of the natural-gas explosion that – on July 10, 2018 – killed the firefighter Cory Barr and destroyed or severely damaged several buildings. The site that had once been home to a bar and restaurant owned by Barr and his wife could be where the hotel is built. And the site of a former Glass Nickel Pizza, across the street, could become the location of a 70-unit mixed-use project.

More broadly, the plan calls for various developments south of Main, include row houses and single-family houses on small lots, a two-story parking garage and three surface lots with a combined 830 spaces, and an extension of Jones Street south and Lane Street west so they come close to the school district’s Ashley Field, which is undergoing its own redevelopment and expansion so it can accommodate additional events and sports.

Lane Street might also be rebuilt into a multi-use route and center for downtown activities and given the name “Festival Street,” according to the Lakota Group.
Festival Street is an “absolutely fantastic” idea for downtown Sun Prairie, said Dan Callies, owner of Eddie’s Alehouse and Eatery at 238 E. Main, a member of the Downtown Steering Committee and chairman of the city’s Business Improvement District Board.

Scott Kugler, city development director, cautioned that the plan is nothing more than a proposal, and said that the extensions of Jones and Lane are not guaranteed to happen. He also acknowledged that the plan would result in the addition of several hundred residential units to replace the several dozen lost in the explosion, and said “residents downtown will be good for business.”

Callies said that sentiment has been echoed by downtown business owners.

“Any time you have people who can walk to your business, there’s a better chance that they’re going to do that,” he said.

Mayor Paul Esser said that with the advent of online retailing and the big-box-heavy Prairie Lakes shopping area on the city’s southwest edge, the interest in the city’s historic downtown has little to do with retail and much with living, dining and entertainment.

Although the none of the land affected by the explosion is directly owned by the city, local officials propose using zoning rules and tax incentives to bring about the sort of redevelopment called for by the plan. To that end, the area is included in a tax-increment-financing district that’s expected to expire in four or five years but could be extended, Kugler said.

“The city’s going to need to participate in funding,” Esser said, and although it’s not a landowner, it’s a “partner in the sense of getting things done.”

Beyond The Lakota Group’s work to make use of residents’ suggestions for the plan, downtown property owners “have been involved from the get-go,” Kugler said, and owners of sites at the southwest corner of Main and Bristol have already been talking to city officials about possible developments, although there has yet to be a formal proposal.

Sun Prairie Utilities at 125 W. Main St. is also considering a move, which would open up that property for redevelopment, Kugler said.

Only a couple of amendments to the plan were requested during a meeting last week of the Downtown Steering Committee, Kugler said. One was for more information about the shadows that would be made by the construction of tall buildings. The other was to provide greater clarity on how far buildings should be set back from curbs.

The Lakota Group, which is receiving about $85,000 for the plan, has been working with the city since the spring. The Plan Commission is expected to take up the redevelopment plan on Jan. 14, and adoption by the City Council is possible by Jan. 21.

“Now we’ve got a reference point with this concept plan,” Esser said.

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