Imagine sitting on your porch not far from Stoughton’s downtown looking at community gardens or a courtyard, watching people fish on the Yahara River. There are apartment buildings – including one built with reclaimed bricks from a historic building – and townhomes around the block and a brew pub with a terrace overlooking the river a short walk away.
Curt Vaughn Brink LLC pitched this vision for the riverfront redevelopment area to the Stoughton Redevelopment Authority on June 26, and now the commission will have to determine whether that developer will be a good fit to take the lead in developing the city’s riverfront.
Brink is the remaining developer who responded to the city’s request for interest in the project, and the meeting was the first with a developer in a process that began months ago. The “request for expression of interest” is more open-ended than what the city tried two years ago, when it ended up with an Appleton developer that eventually backed out when it sensed the city and RDA were not on the same page.
Brink’s plan, put together with the help of design firm Potter Lawson, got rave reviews from some commissioners and Mayor Tim Swadley but also inspired some critical questions about how realistic the vision might be and how much taxpayer support it might require.
The RDA has set a deadline for the end of summer to consider the proposal. With no other developers remaining – two backed out over the last two weeks – the group could either move forward with Brink or return to the drawing board.
Doug Hirsh, an architect with Potter Lawson, said the goal of Brink’s plan was to create a neighborhood that is “authentic to Stoughton.”
“We want this to be an extension of the city so it feels like it was part of the city all along,” Hirsh said during the meeting.
Hirsh discussed the design principles that were crafted to adhere to what the RDA said it wanted to hear during the request process: Those included team vision, review of the master development process, public interaction process, feeling for the development phasing and priorities, feel for market capabilities and a look at financial capabilities for completing a project of this scale.
Hirsh highlighted several ideas, including riverfront restoration and increased access for the entire community, creating green spaces, a mix of housing types and a preservation of the authenticity of Stoughton, including respect for the city’s history and a rebuild of the blacksmith shop.
RDA chair Roger Springman seemed enthusiastic about the vision presented but questioned the timeline.
Brink expressed several times during the presentation his group was ready to start the development as early as this fall. But for as long as the city has been actively working to redevelop the riverfront – at least since MillFab closed in 2014 – it remains early in this development process.
The Brink development team has yet to confer with the commission to narrow the scope and adhere to what both the RDA and the community have so far expressed wanting in the riverfront area. And the planned development process can take several months or more.
But Springman said it’s a promising start.
“He has the exact kind of vision and energy we need to do a project of this magnitude and regional impact,” Springman told the Hub in an email after the meeting.
Early flags went up during the meeting, as commissioners and RDA consultant Gary Becker pushed Brink whether the vision is realistic. Questions included sustainable practices, the length of the development process and how the development would fit into the Stoughton market.
The development team used examples of past projects in Madison, and Becker cautioned that the housing market in Stoughton is not comparable.
“If your underwriters are looking at the Stoughton market and looking at the kind of project you’re looking at building, they are going to say ‘Are you nuts?’” Becker said.
Brink said his team is “willing to take the risk” and that his team wants to build the first building of apartments, “with the right look and good quality,” to start “resetting the market.”
“What helps us take the risk is the proximity to the water,” Brink said, adding that there are no apartment projects on the water happening around Dane County. “If you live here, you’re on the water, you have a lot of activities, and here’s the downtown. Stoughton has a ton of great stuff going on.”
Another possible sticking point is the fate of one of the last remaining buildings in the targeted area, the blacksmith shop. The RDA remains in a legal battle with the company that demolished most of the Highway Trailer complex, and the outcome could determine whether that building will be reinforced or taken down.
Brink’s team proposed demolishing the building and using its bricks to re-create the structure closer to Fourth Street, where it would be used for housing.
The possibility of reclaiming bricks seemed to appeal to commissioners, who nodded and smiled when the history and familiarity with such an undertaking was explained.
“We really liked this blacksmith shop as far as the building form, though we can’t keep it the way it is,” he said.
Focus on housing
While some discussions about the project area in the past have included more commercial space, Hirsh and Brink said they want the business emphasis to come with the riverfront’s proximity to downtown Main Street.
And as several businesses have closed on that stretch in the last six months, Brink said he felt the businesses along Main Street would be emphasized with a housing-oriented development and that any commercial properties at the riverfront location would fail, with the exception of the brew pub that would pull people to the terrace on the riverfront.
“It would be very hard for retail to survive down here,” Brink said. “We’re thinking, let’s drive everything to the downtown. You’re very fortunate, look around this whole area, there’s not a Main Street like that.”
To satisfy that housing focus, Brink’s proposal includes a high-density mix of apartments, townhomes, rental and owner-occupied housing, with the goal of appealing to all segments of the population.
This includes single-family townhomes and owner-occupied homes on South Street, three-story apartment buildings with internal and external courtyards in the center and development with “an industrial flavor” to the western side of the development. Brink said it could be around 300 units including the townhomes, but that could change throughout the planning process once the RDA has a chance to provide input on how it envisions the area.
The three-story apartment buildings would be surrounded by townhomes, Hirsh said, to help ease into the style of housing in the surrounding area.
The proximity to downtown was emphasized in the proposal plans with connection streets following the city’s grid that would loop through the development, linking to Sixth and South Fourth streets, and allow more walkability between the riverfront area and Main Street.
“This one is exciting for us because you are creating a neighborhood and adding to the history of Stoughton” Hirsh said. “It’s the next chapter for the downtown area.”