An Off-Season Discussion of the City Square…

Eds Note: With this post we welcome Jim Rosenberg to the Wausaublog, and look forward to many more. Although Jim is very approachable, this is another opportunity to let one of our public officials know what you think, just by using the comment box.


An Off-Season Discussion of the City Square…
Jim RosenbergBy Jim Rosenberg:


With the third meeting of the fourth or fifth incarnation of the city square committee rapidly approaching, I found myself on a teleconference with someone from the Project for Public Spaces in an effort to restart a positive community discussion about this unpolished gem in the midst of downtown Wausau. I’ve had people from PPS to Wausau on several occasions and I’ve also trained with them in Washington, New Orleans and New York.Frustrating as it has been in many ways, I still think that we will eventually be able to break out of the Click for Larger Imageparalysis that has kept our city square from reaching its true potential. I know that we can come up with something functional and visionary that will make 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.

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 eight years. The block was 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.

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. Now, 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, Wild Wausau, Summer Kickoff, to grab a baguette at the weekly summer market or another programmed event, it can be easy to think that nothing more is needed. Many people do. But the reality is that the block is neither Click for Larger Imageparticularly inviting nor interesting when there isn’t such an activity going on, which is most of the time. 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 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 is a blank canvas. We’ve nicely framed it and painted in a background, but we haven’t completed the picture. 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.

“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. What I like to say is “You don’t have to be sick to get better.”

For a dose of antidote to inertia, visit: www.pps.org

After you’ve explored it, feel free to tell me that it’s time to give up because what we’ve done so far is the very best we can ever expect of ourselves and our city square.

JR

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26 responses to “An Off-Season Discussion of the City Square…

  1. Jim,

    I will start off by saying, I thought the concerts on the square were funded through Room Tax dollars that went through Wausau Area Events. Am I incorrect in this perception?

  2. You are correct. City Pages is the founder, promoter and arranger of the concerts on the square in cooperation with Wausau Area Events. When the concerts in Stewart Park inquired about funding a few years back, it was provided on the condition of moving the concerts downtown. The concerts are funded with room tax dollars through WAE.

  3. Personally.. I guess I am an advocate of less is more. I understood the need for removing the blight that was the 400 block. I would also agree that the atmosphere that the square adds has helped to keep the remaining spaces mostly occupied.

    I don’t see where it needs any more. I agree that the square in and of itself is not a tourist desination. So what? Wausau is full of tourist destinations. Also, adding certain features such as a fountain or other things also lessens the utility: thats less space for the art weekend, it gets in the way of the ice rink, would be in the way of the balloons, etc.

    I don’t see the square as a destiniation, it is an amenity. My fiance and I have been on the square for the balloon, for the art weekend, and we were driving by and she saw the Asian farmers market and had to stop.

    I think it is wise every 4-5 years to revisit the issue as needs change and the city changes. But my 2 cents worth, for the next 4-5 years, the 400 block is serving Wausau just fine.

  4. I agree with John. I think that there is no point in changing it to the extent I read Bill Forrest talking about.

    I do think that the city needs to actively program there more. I think that the city truly needs to support something like a Farmers Market there.

    And more directly childrens programming. I do not know if Bill Duncanson drives programming, or just responds to requests.

  5. As a Wausau native who now lives in Madison but visits the old hometown regularly, let me say that the transformation of the 400 block into an open, public space is one of the best things I’ve seen happen to this community in many years. Contrary to what Mr. Rosenberg says, it *doesn’t* look either “featureless” or like a vacant lot, and his idea that the block’s neither “inviting” nor “interesting” seems almost entirely narrow-minded, at least to me. I would hate to see nearly any kind of permanent structure built on this small, green oasis of potential community-building. In an era where public spaces disappear seemingly every minute, the 400 block’s simplicity, accessibility and – yes – beauty are something to cherish. It’s not a “blank canvas” for the city or private developers to alter or destroy; it’s one of the that marks Wausau’s downtown in a positive way.

    I also join the chorus of voices on this blog and elsewhere in advocating for more events, both regularly-scheduled and one-time-only, on the site. That would create community, and pursue Mr. Rosenberg’s goal of “excellence,” in a way that no structure possibly could.

  6. Very well said, Charles, thanks for dropping by.

  7. Thank you, Bill. The blog’s new contributors and last few posts have sent it in a very exciting direction. I look forward to future entries.

  8. Exciting.. there’s a good word. I have always seen myself as a political moderate. As city leaders in Wausau, Schofield, Weston and Mosinee can attest to.. I normally walk into the meeting with the hope of a win-win compromise that accomplishes the goal of one group without hurting the other group. I am hoping that my opinions here have not changed that image of me. Exciting indeed.

  9. Who said anything about structures or private developers? What could be more narrow-minded that to refuse to explore possibilties that might enhance and add to the qualities and that the square already possesses? Events and programming are critical, but they are neither a complete nor cost-effective substitute for dealing with fundamental shortcomings in the area of truly creating a sense of place.

  10. From clock towers to micro-breweries, the lion’s share of ideas that I’ve heard floated over the years to “enhance” the (your words) “blank canvas” of the 400 block have concerned the building of structures within the open space. Since the moment that the buildings on the block were razed, there has been a chorus of voices emphatically, eagerly offering plans to build on or otherwise “improve” the 400 block. They often use language similar to yours, Mr. Rosenberg, terminology like “asset,” “cost-effective” and “fundamental shortcomings,” so I apologize if I’ve misconstrued your opinions.

    I sincerely applaud you if your hopes for the 400 block remain less grandiose, but I remain unconvinced that larger plans for the 400 block don’t in some way involve the desire to build on or develop the open space.

  11. I would like to send you a couple pictures I took in other public spaces elsewhere depicting things that I would like CONSIDERED for the block. Since I don’t have a way to attach them to this reply, please feel free to e-mail me at:

    jimmyboy_eh@yahoo.com

    I can’t take responsibility for everything that everyone has suggested and I’ve cringed right along with many others along the way. What I will say is that I believe there are amenities, infrastructure, variances in elevation, judicious use of hardscaping and vegetation that would all be elements of what I believe would significantly enhance the space. What I will also say is that many people have a hard time with change and great difficulty visualizing things.

    If you would like a tangible example of the kind of activity I personally think is important, go to the Thursday market sometime next summer. It was a project that I drew up while I was working on a professional certificate in economic development several years ago. We still need to grow it, but it’s a start.

  12. I agree that the thursday market is/was amazing. I think that the arrival of Kevin Korpela’s downtown grocery and the rsources they have lead us to a bigger and better market.

    I think that looking at ideas and discussing them leads to no harm at all. But the ideas put forth for change have been put forth in a manner that leads many to think that these are the things that will happen. I believe that this is a problem with control of the message.

    My suggestion is this…a blank, mulit use, green space that focuses on green. The city has the temporary stage, and it is used successfully in the summer month.

    I am sure local businesses are bombarded with people using restrooms in the summer during the 400 block shows…or did I miss porta potties?

    I suggest the follow people to be more involved…

    1. Kevin Korpela and Blaine from downtown grocery. Makes sense to bring in a farmer to help with a farmers market.

    2. The River Valley Jazz Society. I believe Syd Keiler is president. But let them help work on 400 block shows.

    Ahh, I need coffee…more later.

  13. Jim, if you would email those pictures to me, if you don’t mind, I would be glad to post them here.

  14. I guess there is now enough verbage here that I can comment without being too obvious. Personally, I like the open space of the 400 Block and perhaps like Jim, some of the proposals for that space (the overbuilt cluttered ones) have made me cringe as well.

    However, I think the asphalt X sidewalks in the middle are not attractive, and a few features to “spruce up” the space might be nice. A fountain or a bandshell could be attractive additions. It would be nice if there was some kind of more permanent seating other than the plain park benches.

    But I would be opposed to any plan that “boxed in” the space with walls or structures of some kind. I think being able to walk out of the Mint Cafe and just have ArtsBlock right there across a sea of green is a nice sight. And, as I have documented here, I love the various kinds of events that can take place on that “open canvas.”

  15. the blacktop walks are kind of blah.. has any thought been given to pavers that are paid for by private donations… I have seen the paver sidewalks where each brick is engraved with the party that made the donation for that brick

  16. At Hospice, and DC Everest there are similar engraved bricks

  17. I don’t find the black asphalt all that objectionable, nor the park benches insufficient, but I wouldn’t necessarily oppose attempts to better utilize the 400 block as a park-like gathering place. I would, however, find the names of organizations/corporations on engraved bricks lining the walkway to be an unnecessary, troubling distraction. The complete lack of agenda – public, private or otherwise – in the appearance of the 400 block is one of the space’s nicest qualities.

    I still fail to understand what’s wrong with the 400 block the way it is now. Furthermore, I take serious issue with the following comment from Mr. Rosenberg: “What I will also say is that many people have a hard time with change and great difficulty visualizing things. ” I resent the implication that those of us who desire to see the 400 block remain essentially as it is are somehow intellectually or creatively inferior to those “visionaries” who desire to change the area. My “vision” of the 400 block is no less legitimate than those of Mr. Rosenberg, or anyone else, simply because I desire to see it remain the simple pleasure it is at the moment.

    For the record, I support any and all events held on the 400 block, from the weekly summer concerts to the markets to the Christmas-carol challenge to the peace rally held there in 2003. That’s how you build community.

  18. I’m all about building community and I spend a lot of time on those efforts. You can decide for yourself if the comment about having difficulty visualing things or resisting change is applicable to you. If the shoe doesn’t fit, don’t wear it. It wasn’t personally directed at you. This is a marketplace of ideas. You sell yours and I’ll sell mine. It’s not about you and it’s not about me. I don’t resent disagreement. This is a discussion. Let’s focus on ideas and not people. Bill will post some photos I’ve sent him of a couple of ideas and maybe we’ll find out we’re not so far apart about things. I’ve long since given up thinking I’m “right” about everything and I instead rely on the process to produce the best outcomes.

  19. Well, we all know I am right. Look at my photo, clearly that is a right guy.

    Like I have said before, I think this Rosenberg fellow is a rock star.

    I also think that this issue of the 400 block will once again get lost in that lovely paralysis.

    A clock you say…well that is lovely…should it be digital? Military time? Which way should it face? I like Roman Numerals. Will it go BONG? I like the big bell sound of a bong.

    A band shell? Really. Should it be a modern design? Do we build in storage underneath to house the elements of a proper stage? Or do we dump them in Rick Mohlinetsky’s lap. Should we name the band shell? The Syd Keiler bandshell and the John Altenburg stage?

    Or a fountain…how should that water shoot up? Like the Mirage in Vegas I say…and name it after the great Wausau East swimming Melissa Clay, or Cameron Loos the only swimmer from Wausau to compete in the Hawaiian Ironman (and work with me at the Rothschild pool thank you so very much).

    In all seriousness, Charles is one of the smartest people ever to grow up in this town, and I dig him to no end.

    Rosenberg…pure rockstar. Man of the people, cool dude.

    My final, and relatively serious word for the evening is this…I believe that the 400 Block is perfect like this. It is a open space, that is multi use. The grass is an environmentally good thing. I even dig the big asphalt X.

    I say this…add programming. Go talk to Korpela, get Jason from Dwellers in the room, talk to the guy from Sheppard and Schallers…basically…do more with it. Lets have clowns and baloons, and Irish band, and Paul Westerberg, and poetry, and church choirs, and the whole kit and kaboodle.

    My thing…inclusive.

    And I gave up caffeine. Who does such a thing.

  20. The pics have been posted, so everyone can fire away. (Unrelated matter, speaking of ambiance, rock stars and bongs: The Pink Floyd Experience at the Grand next Wednesday was nearly sold out the last time I checked — some single tickets still available and a few pairs…)

    The ad hoc committee last night advanced the idea of a design based on the current “X” and this may be the first significant step toward some serious cutting & polishing work on the diamond in the rough that we currently have. It also looks like Wausau Area Events will be offering up 10 Wednesday concerts this summer instead of eight. Stay tuned.

  21. More Concerts on the Square sounds good to me! And if the “X” were kinder and gentler…:)

  22. Westerberg, yes. Clowns, no.

  23. What’s wrong with clowns? I love clowns! 😉

  24. CORRECTION: The Pink Floyd Experience is Sunday, January 21. (WHEW! I thought I was going to be at a County Board meeting.)

  25. I know that it’s much more expensive than the pseudo-Pink Floyd thing, but if the “Songwriters” show at the Grand on Wednesday – with Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Guy Clark and Joe Ely – doesn’t sell out (or come close), that will be an absolute shame. Apart from the fact that all four of these artists are significantly talented, the group is wonderful together in concert.

  26. I saw the real Pink Floyd twice. I just don’t get the whole tribute band thing. I can’t wait for the Songwriters show. I was pleasantly surprised at the turnout for Dwight Yoakam and John Prine. Both were sublime.

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