After months of debate, La Crosse Common Council OKs rezoning for former fisheries lab

Fish Hatchery Public Input Meeting
Renovations are in process on the former fisheries lab at Riverside Park. (News 8 Now photo)

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) — Rezoning the former fisheries lab in Riverside Park, which has prompted great gnashing of teeth for months, finally gained the La Crosse Common Council on a 12-1 vote Thursday —- after exchanging a few more barbs about the process.

The source of the controversy has been a proposal to convert the building to an entertainment venue, with an AirBnB on the second floor, although future use technically has not been on the table.

The vote was to rezone the building at 520 Veterans Memorial Drive E. from a public/semi-public to commercial district, which passed.

At the beginning of the discussion, Council President Barb Janssen said, “I want to make it very clear I’m voting on the zoning change … I’m not necessarily in favor of the plans.”

Along similar lines, council member Andrea Richmond said the brouhaha should serve as a lesson for “what we do in our future … with lease negotiations and we haven’t approved the zoning.”

Richmond was referring to apparent negotiations between members of the Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department and the proponents of the entertainment venue.

“These negotiations have gone on and gone on and changed,” she said. “We need to sharpen up.”

Richmond objected to the AirBnB notion, which drew applause from residents attending the meeting at the South Side Senior Center.

Several council members noted that the rezoning provides opportunities for expanding uses of the park, although they also acknowledged that the public had not been well informed about potential uses.

“Mark my words, we’re going to have a beautiful park with a decrepit building,” said council member Doug Happel, adding, “The park needs a building with a real purpose.”

The council has designated spending a half-million dollars for work on the building this year and next, and much of the renovation has been done.

Council member Rebecca Schwarz said community feedback has shown a “great love for Riverside Park. That place is for all of us.”

At one point, Mayor Mitch Reynolds inadvertently provided a degree of comic relief after reminding council members not to attack each other directly during the discussion.

“Indirectly is fine,” he said, evoking laughter among council members in the center and those participating virtually.

Council President Janssen also noted that the matter now goes to the Park Board for lease negotiations that will be submitted to the council.

“It’s not a done deal — just more options,” she said.

On another potentially controversial matter, the board referred for 30 days a vote on a proposal from Bethany Lutheran Homes to rezone a property at 2575 Seventh St. S. from a multiple dwelling district to special multiple dwelling to allow for a four-story building.

Some residents in the neighborhood have expressed concerns about the height, hoping for a three-story restriction and fearing that the building could go higher than four, among other concerns.

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