Council to consider downtown historic district a second time

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By Correne Martin

 

Designating Blackhawk Avenue as a historic district will be brought for reconsideration at the May 17 Prairie du Chien Common Council meeting. It will be the second time this month, as the council first considered the  topic at its May 3 meeting. Council opinion seems to represent both sides of the issue. 

Though the state historical society has tasked the city Design and Preservation Commission with identifying local areas of cultural importance, and the council-appointed commission is recommending the Blackhawk Avenue Historic District be approved, the council felt May 3 that it didn’t have enough information yet. The council tabled action and asked that commission representatives bring back design standards before it would consider approving the district.

However, Mayor Dave Hemmer and some council members wanted the issue brought back to the very next council meeting. They’ve since learned that a number of business leaders in support of the district want the opportunity to share their thoughts with the council. Thus, the topic will return May 17.

The commission has met monthly since October, and many owners of the downtown businesses and private homeowners have attended these smaller gatherings, giving their support to a historic district, asking questions and voicing concerns, said Tammie Katzung, commission member. She noted, those representatives came to be part of the early historic district conversations; but it wasn’t until a public hearing a few months ago that a few more strongly concerned  individuals shared their worries publicly with the commission as well as council members.

One main misgiving is the feeling that property owners are being “told what to do” with their property. 

Alderwoman Karen Solomon vocalized that logic, speaking for those who may be opposed. “I’m one of those who feels, it’s my property and it seems there’s an element being taken away from me, even though I may not be interested in being part of this,” she commented.

According to Commission Chair Chad Fradette, who spoke at last Tuesday’s council meeting, that is not the case at all. 

“This should not be a micromanaging situation. If business owners have something they’re considering, they can come to our commission and then we’ll work together to make it happen,” he stated.

City Planner Garth Frable added, “I grew up on the river near Madison, Ind. They have 115 city blocks on the National Historic Register. Their design and preservation district ordinance has not prevented any updates or structures.” 

He also urged the council, “You’ve created this commission. You really need to let them work out the process.”

Alderwoman Kelssi Ziegler, who also sits on the commission, has heard from her constituents. Some haven’t known much about the Design and Preservation Commission or the proposed Blackhawk Historic District. A few others, she said, “were not necessarily excited about it.” Previously, she’s cited concerns about property owners not being able to carry out projects in their desired timeline, but instead needing to adhere to a lengthier process with the commission involved.

Fradette has assured her it won’t be a drawn-out approval process with the commission. He said there would be certain aspects of the ordinance that would only require a quick OK from city staff, and not approval of the entire commission. He’s also stated that he expects the commission to expeditiously consider projects.

Alderman Jaaren Riebe offered his thoughts: “First of all, I’m for it. I want this passed. I think it’s a good idea for the city. But I’d like to see some design standards before we approve anything.”

“We’ve chosen to go that route for the Beaumont-Wacouta Historic District because it’s a little more personal with the residences,” Fradette noted, sharing that the commission hadn’t heard many concerns regarding the Blackhawk District until recently. 

He added that approving the Blackhawk District is intended to make it prosper. 

“One thing that’s never changed (over time) is our love of the downtown. We shop downtown, we attend parades. We’re trying to shepherd the downtown for future generations,” Fradette said. “This is so we can do improvements, which will improve property values and improve tourism. Some properties have been denied National Historic Register status because they’re not in a historic district yet.”

He then reiterated what he has explained at commission meetings, that if the district were approved, businesses could use tax credits to put into their properties for updates to facade, windows, heating, etc. If owners are not interested in obtaining tax credits, then, Fradette pointed out, the commission’s standards will be a lot less than what the state’s would be.

“For the most part, [improvements] don’t have to look like the exact architecture (of any period), they just have to fit in,” Fradette said. He said this includes buildings that are not historic, but only “contributing buildings” within the district.

Alderwoman Kayla Ingham had a few hold-ups about the district, after researching it and talking to the people she represents. One was if such a historic district would hinder the sales of downtown properties. 

Though he didn’t have a direct answer to that, he mentioned that there are some potential buyers who won’t even consider buying in until it becomes a historic district. 

Since the public hearing a few months back, Patrick Igou has shared his desires not to have his residence included in the Blackhawk District. Igou lives at 153 N. Beaumont Rd., which is also known as the Alaskan Canadian Fur Trade building. He is also a part owner in The Tavern and has interest in the old Fort Crawford Hotel downtown as well, which he wants in the district. However, he attended the May 3 council meeting and again voiced his opinion for his home to be left out. 

“The contiguous nature of this map will not be affected by my home being removed from the district,” he stated. 

The commission has contended that, for many historic factors, including the iconic people who’ve done business there, that building is a significant property to be included. Buildings as such could make the difference between the state approving or denying a national designation of the whole district.

Mary Antoine, commission member, said the city has been having discussions like this since the 1980s. She said she has been disheartened by these conversations about Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin’s second oldest community. She said she wishes people would start talking more about how they can work together for their community.

If the council approves the district May 17, after seeing standards from the commission, only then can the city apply for the district to be on the National Historic Register.

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