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What Oshkosh Needs – “A Fresh Plan… for Downtown” (part 2 of 11)

by Darryn Burich

First off, if it appears with this piece that I am shilling for my craft then you are absolutely correct because in doing so hopefully I am also shilling for improvement of a vital part of our community. Then again there are only so many effective avenues of outreach I have at my disposal to plant such seeds to keep our community progressing and relevant in the context of attracting more and more people and businesses here and stimulating investment.

I want to start this discussion by saying that we do have a plan for the downtown. It’s called the Downtown Action Plan and it has been a rather successful one. The Plan was prepared in 2000 by LDR International after holding “town hall” meetings and various interviews and gathering input from approximately 400 people for its ultimate development. The Plan was funded and grew out of a partnership effort between the City, Chamber, and Community Foundation. That plan helped set the strategic vision for rejuvenation of Downtown Oshkosh that has resulted in significant improvements being made to the downtown and its environs that has improved our overall quality of life and has helped stimulate private investment in the downtown.

The Downtown Action Plan helped solidify such improvements as the development of the Leach Amphitheater and expansion to Riverside Park. It was the guiding document for enhancing the streetscaping along N. Main Street, was done with broad support of downtown businesses and accomplished the goal of slowing down traffic through the Main Street environment. The plan recommended establishment of a “market plaza” that resulted in the overall development of Opera House Square. It encouraged the upgrade and expansion of the convention center that has helped in repositioning the hotel as a destination that will bring significant convention and tourist business back to Oshkosh. And, one of my personal favorites, it reinforced the community’s desire to reclaim the riverfront to include an interconnected trail system. While there is still work to be done per the Plan, it is time to take a fresh look and evaluate how far we have come and where we still can go.

The community has other plans impacting downtown as well. We have the riverwalk plan that was developed in part because of a recommendation in the Downtown Action Plan. We have numerous tax incremental financing plans, redevelopment district plans, concept plans for the S. Main Street area, and annual Business Improvement District Plans. UW Oshkosh has a master plan as well.

One of the city’s strategic plan goals is to strengthen neighborhoods and city planners are currently working with neighborhood associations adjacent to downtown that will culminate in development of individual neighborhood plans that will intrinsically be linked with the downtown . We have utility plans, transportation plans, bicycle plans, streetscaping plans. All in some way, shape, or form impact the downtown and central city area.

As you can see, we have lots and lots of individual plans. Each of the plans are good in their own way at helping to achieve their own specific goals and objectives. But with all of these individual plans we don’t have one overarching unifying plan bringing those elements together. We have a “Comprehensive Plan” that is meant to tie everything together in the community together but it falls short of really establishing a cohesive and implementable plan tailor-made for the downtown and central city.

What I propose we do now is take a fresh look at our downtown and build upon the successes that we have achieved since the creation of the Downtown Action Plan in 2000 and create a fresh and updated plan for not just the downtown but those areas just proximate to the downtown which we like to call the central city. We need a unifying plan that ties together the downtown with the business districts along Oregon Street and S. Main Street; A plan that ties together the downtown with Marion Road and the University; A plan that will tie together those areas that are redeveloping along the south side of river especially those areas where the former Morgan Door (Jeld Wen) is close to redeveloping. The Plan would need to take into account Pioneer Inn area as well developing a long term strategy to deal with the remaining industrial users along S. Main Street.

Any plan to be developed must be comprehensive in nature and go beyond just simply recommending land uses but also include standards for architecture and building form and placement. The plan must look at what specific types of land uses are appropriate, going farther than simply saying an area is appropriate for commercial use in the broad sense and actually recommending or prohibiting certain types of uses that contribute to implementing the vision.

For example, we may have an area zoned for commercial development and while an office type user would typically be compliant with the permitted zoning district, the intended use in the plan may be targeted more at neighborhood scale commercial businesses to serve adjacent residential users such as coffee shop or grocery. And yes, we must be realistic and understand what the market is now but also understand what the market potential is given the right set of circumstances and investment.

We have to be prepared to stick with the Plan instead of jumping at any potential development that presents itself because it is simply more taxable value in the community or helps pay off our debt service. Remember we are going to be living with these developments for the next 100 years so let’s be patient and get it right the first time.

Why do this? Because all great cities plan. Great cities and great places don’t just happen without any forethought. The great architect and planning pioneer Daniel Burnham said “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir man’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.” And that’s what we need right now in Oshkosh. It can be done and is currently being done in places like Green Bay, Appleton, Sheboygan, Milwaukee and Madison, among others.

The time is right as their becomes a renewed interest in our central city and before the economy gets really rolling again so let’s get out ahead of it and develop a unifying, specific, and implementable plan for the central city that will add downtown Oshkosh as one of the nation’s great places.

Darren works as the city of Oshkosh Planning Director.

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