Tuesday, July 28 at 6 p.m., there will be yet another public discussion of the latest incarnation of a plan to improve the 400 block in downtown Wausau. I’d like to be able to tell you that this is the beginning of the end of a decade-plus long public debate; that we will finally do the cutting and polishing necessary to transform this small, but significant piece of real estate into the gem that it should really be.
I’d like to tell you that since the question is simply for the city council to get out of the way and let people who care about and understand this public asset take care of improving and funding it, it’s now going to finally get done.
But it may not. It’s going to take some serious positive pressure to overcome the negative inertia that has prevailed for years.
The plan is functional, somewhat muted and not particularly expensive as these things go. Still, it at least makes a statement about something besides our inability to reach a consensus, our fear of change or our unwillingness to invest in an important asset that can be all that it is today and much more.
It’s going to end up being funded largely with private contributions. That’s not because it’s fair, logical or follows any particular precedent. It’s because enough people are tired of fighting about that issue and they just want to take the whole “I’m an angry taxpayer” discussion off the table in order to get on with things that have now been stalled for half a generation and counting.
When the buildings on the 400 block were razed, it was to take some very distressed real estate out of the picture in downtown Wausau and thereby increase the value of the remaining properties. It worked and it has been a significant component in what has been nothing short of a renaissance of our downtown over the past 10 years. The block was even open to the prospect of economic development for a time, but it rapidly became something that was regarded as sacrosanct and its future as a public asset is secure. Now, tens of thousands of people visit the block in season for concerts, Chalkfest, the still-growing Thursday markets and more.
I’ve had the opportunity to be involved from the controversial acquisition of the buildings by the city until today. My continuing interest has extended into the various activities there. City Pages’ “Concerts on the Square” were the concerts in Stewart Park until they were moved to provide beneficial synergy to downtown. The summer concerts are an institution. Our Main Street and Wausau Area Events organizations have had a wonderful and positive impact on the use of the block with their creativity and hard work.
For those who only go to the 400 block for a concert on the square, Chalkfest, the balloon glow, Summer Kickoff, to grab something the weekly summer market or another programmed event, it can be easy to think that nothing more is needed. Many people do. Crowds and activities create their own ambiance. But the reality is that the block is neither particularly inviting nor interesting when there isn’t such an activity going on, which is most of the time. It is not a place that you would take your out-of-town friends to see or spend time. It’s not a cool place to meet, hang out or have a conversation. It’s not a place to propose marriage or somewhere interesting take the kids. I’ve visited public squares on four continents since we began work on the 400 block and what we have is a lot of unrealized potential. It looks and feels like a flat, nearly featureless vacant lot with no real character or pleasant ambiance of its own because that is exactly what it is. It’s an empty fishbowl.
The rejection of expert opinions by people who have no background in public spaces, are not involved in event planning, may spend little time on the block — and sometimes don’t even live in the city — is kind of amazing. They speak out against improvements based ostensibly on their enjoyment of events which the stagers point out will be enhanced by the project. Informal perimeter bench sitting becomes the Berlin Wall or a skateboard magnet (what about the planters down there now?) “Less is more,” they say, fighting what would be more efficient and attractive use of space. They pass around their fears, negativity and myths while rarely or never citing an example or an expert to support them. (In their defense, it’s probably very difficult to find them.)
Everybody’s entitled to his or her opinion, but the idea that naysayers should be able to carry the day without anything but their willingness to express a negative opinion based on little or nothing is kind of baffling. Just “because I said so” should prevent anyone else from improving things. We faced the same kind of opposition to opening up Third and Washington Streets on the north side of the mall. Nobody’s going to get thrown out of office by a challenger insisting that was a dumb idea today because it’s so obvious that it worked. We’ve greatly improved access and removed the issue of loitering. There are many more pedestrians on the former “pedestrian mall,” too. Thank goodness that we didn’t go with those who tried to prevent it. But it sure made for great fodder while people were still dealing with unknowns.
While the City Square awaits its long-overdue improvements, it will continue to provide a wonderful opportunity for shortsighted, glib, simplistic pronouncements by people who seem to think that doing nothing is some kind of a virtue. There was plenty of opposition to acquiring the 400 block and clearing it to begin with. Thank goodness we didn’t follow those who opposed it then. We shouldn’t give those who proudly proclaim having no vision of its greater potential today the ability to dictate and limit its future. Those who want to delay for better times are the same people who didn’t want to do anything when things were booming. They won’t be supporting it when unemployment falls and good times roll again either.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a simple view, but it is not reaching for excellence in any way, shape or form. It appeals to those who think about cost to the exclusion of value. Moreover, the people who actually stage the events will tell you that while they will continue to make it work, there really are some things about the square that aren’t nearly what they should be to achieve the highest value for the considerable effort and expense that they invest.
It’s also important to look at the environment that the 400 block exists in: historic, new and renovated buildings with a high level of finish. If the owners of the buildings downtown had followed the example being set in the square, it might be surrounded by something on the order of pole sheds. You can get a lot of square footage cheap that way, you know? Less is more, right? The city should take care of its space in a manner that is harmonious with its neighborhood and right now, it’s clearly not.
With private contributions in play, the cost argument is pretty much down the tubes, but people keep making it anyway because it’s a mantra – whether it applies or not. Many public projects are coming in 10-20 percent under budget these days as contractors compete for work in a soft economy. We ought to let those civic-minded people among us who want to provide this gift to the city to get rolling just as soon as we possibly can so they can get the very most for the money they will be raising.
If Chicago can aspire to host the 2016 Olympics, Wausau can certainly do this modest project in the heart of the city where the value of the space has already been more than amply demonstrated. You don’t have to be sick to get better. It’s time.