The Oshkosh riverfront, which suffered through decades of environmental abuse followed by a series of halting, mostly piecemeal steps to reclaim it, is on the verge of a major transformation that has the potential to remake the city’s image and economy.
“This is our time,” said Grant Schwab, a partner in the newly renamed Morgan District LLC, the property company that has purchased 27 acres of land on the south side of the Fox River. His company has been clearing the old factory buildings that were there in preparation for an ambitious mixed used project that could include office, retail, apartment, marina and high-end condo development.
Local developers and government officials agree that 2014 is shaping up as “The Year of the Riverfront” in Oshkosh, a time when the long-held vision of a thriving, upscale, waterside community replaces the miles of eyesore that have long dominated the city’s most important historical and economic feature.
“We’ve got enough going on that we’re not in the catalyst stage anymore,” said Allen Davis, the city’s community development director. “We have some momentum, and it has the potential to blossom very well.”
Later this year, for the first time in recent memory, the city will have major new construction projects underway at sites that sit opposite each other on the river, with infrastructure work beginning at the Morgan District development and an 80-unit apartment building rising on Marion Road.
At the end of this month, the Oshkosh Common Council will hold a joint workshop with the Plan Commission and the Redevelopment Authority in an effort to advance an architectural and aesthetic vision for the riverfront.
“I’m looking for a ‘wow’ factor, where everything works together,” said Steve Cummings, the council member who has been pushing for attention to mandatory design standards. “Waterfront property is a very valuable asset. We must not let it look like a hodgepodge.”
One possible outcome of the workshop would be the development of minimum design standards or of an architectural approval process for riverfront construction.
Cummings and others believe that a new look on the waterfront could be a powerful economic development tool that would help differentiate Oshkosh from other nearby cities and perhaps become a magnet for new residents.
“Quality of life is a huge part of economic development,” Cummings said, noting that relocation decisions are often made by corporate CEOs who can be swayed by the cultural and recreational amenities that are available in a particular location.
“The river is one of the biggest assets that any city can have,” said Schwab. “This is truly going to be what sets us apart from Neenah, Menasha, Appleton, Green Bay. We need to do it, and we need to do it right.”
He said economic development officials from nearby cities are already imagining what a redeveloped Oshkosh riverfront could look like. One said to Schwab: “Man, you guys have like a crown jewel, a river running through your downtown. What I could do in my city if I had what you have in your city.”
While private developers are expected to move into the lead in remaking the riverfront, it has been public and philanthropic efforts that have made the most difference so far. At one end of the riverfront is the Leach Amphitheater, which was built with a private donation on land that the city purchased and reclaimed. At the other end is the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, which in recent years has placed three new buildings on or near the water.
“They have been setting the standard with the new Alumni Welcome and Conference Center,” Cummings said, referring both to the visual appearance of the building and the way it is sited on the river. (Full disclosure: I have an office in one of those new university buildings with a river view.)
Future development will continue to rely on a mix of private and taxpayer contributions. “The public needs to recognize that if the public sector does not step in the private sector will not move forward, at least not in the economy we have in Oshkosh,” said Davis.
Along with the greater attention to the aesthetics of riverfront development may come closer scrutiny of the city’s financial incentives. In approving the new Marion Road apartment building, for example, the city agreed to sell buildable, waterfront land for less than 50 cents an acre. Although city staffers blamed the low price on environmental contamination, taxpayers will foot the cleanup bill before ownership transfers.
Currently the city is negotiating with the Morgan District developers over the nature and the size of a subsidy for their project, which will most likely be in the form of tax increment financing. With a city election coming up in the spring, it is possible that these development subsidies will become a point of contention.
Just as a point of reference, it’s worth noting that the Morgan District property sold for about $30,000 an acre in a private transaction, a price that is roughly 60,000 times what the city is charging in its deal with a group led by Andrew Dumke, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
© 2014 Miles Maguire.
Miles Maguire has worked on newspapers, magazines and newsletters in a variety of cities, including Baltimore, Milwaukee, New York and Washington. He currently lives in Oshkosh.