A Closer Look at Sturgeon Bay’s West Waterfront Redevelopment Plan

Drive slowly around the West Side of Sturgeon Bay between the steel bridge on Michigan Street and the new Oregon Street Bridge and, apart from the handsome Door County Maritime Museum, you’ll find a pretty desolate waterfront.

Large expanses of empty land surround the old granary and the corrugated steel building that housed the Door County Coop before it moved out to the edge of the city. The marina next to the bridge is the only new commercial development still active; its adjacent restaurant, which had been taken over by Applebee’s, sits empty. On Madison Avenue, some storefronts have been bricked in to create street-level offices, and office space next to the Steel Bridge Cafe is empty as well.

Now the city is pursuing a redevelopment plan, which includes competitive and subsidized rentals, a four-season food market and a hotel on the west side. The city is pursuing several grants for further study and development. This is the first of two articles to review the plans. Comments are welcome below.

Sturgeon Bay hopes that the West Waterfront Redevelopment Plan will attract business and people to a business district littered with empty storefronts and vacant lots. Artist rendering by Vandewalle & Associates, Inc.

The city, which has a mixed record, at best, of waterfront development, is working on plans to develop the west side waterfront located largely between the two bridges and extending back to Maple Street. Plans developed by Vandewalle & Associates, Inc. of Madison and Milwaukee are to maintain the connection to the working waterfront while dressing it up and moving away the most dramatic elements, the Selvick tugs.

Developed by the city and the Door County Economic Development Corporation, the plan has a sharp focus on the waterfront. Its goals are to encourage best use for valuable waterfront sites, make a busy and highly functional waterfront area for community residents and improve public access to the waterfront.

Here the city has obviously learned some lessons from its last big waterfront development – Stone Harbor Resort and Conference Center on the other side of the Michigan Street Bridge. That complex effectively walled off the waterfront and marina from the city’s historic downtown. Design that kept the public in mind at Stone Harbor could have included a wide, tall corridor through the building between the restaurant and bar inviting the public in from the parking lot to the waterfront. The public walkway along the marina and bay is pleasant but it feels private. Even a sign by the bridge end of the complex saying something like “Welcome to Bay View Walk – Public Walkway” would be helpful.

Despite calling for highest and best use of the waterfront, the plan proposes a two-story, four-season market with approximately 30,000 square feet of space at water’s edge. This proposal comes shortly after a market analysis that concludes: “Overall, the area has a greater supply than demand in the major industry areas of Retail Trade and Food and drink, meaning that the retail potential of the Local Market Area is more than met by current supply” (capitalization per the plan text). To get around the lack of commercial justification, the plan calls the market a “trailhead” to the food and arts of Door County.

One problem with this idea is that the wineries and bakeries already run their own pretty nifty facilities and establishing a second location might not be prudent. Tim Lawrie, owner of Simon Creek Winery in Carlsville, said his second location on Third Avenue was doing well until a law was passed in 2007 that requires a winery that operates a second location to sell its own wine through a distributor. The legislation – a sign of the power of distributors and the three-tier system that was put in place after Prohibition – takes about 25 percent of the sale.

As for showcasing county artists, some artists express cautious interest depending on the costs and requirements. Most either run their own galleries or have contracts with the handsome big exhibition spaces at Woodwalk in Egg Harbor, Edgewood Orchards in Fish Creek or Fine Line Designs in Ephraim. Perhaps a “trailhead” could work if the Door County Visitor Bureau were to devote two or three of its staff to run the center, acting both as sales people and information resources, while keeping the costs charged to food suppliers and artists reasonable. A freestanding two-story food, art and activity center on the waterfront is not best use of valuable waterfront, but it could be part of something larger or located somewhere else in the development zone.

The plan says that the four-lane expansion of Highway 57 means “Sturgeon Bay’s unique retail and recreation opportunities are now equally more accessible to residents of the greater Green Bay metro area.” Really? What were they thinking?

Maybe that works if the Wisconsin Department of Transportation stays true to its past practice of maximizing inconvenience to the county, shuts down the Bay View Bridge for a couple of years and thereby forces all Fish Creek-bound traffic into town. But in the minds of many tourists, Door County doesn’t begin until Egg Harbor. Sturgeon Bay is drive-by territory, much as Los Angeles and New York think of us as flyover country.

If one of the goals of the plan is to get the former Applebee’s up and active, opening a four-season food court with a brew pub and/or restaurant doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. The proposal doesn’t say anything about the impact a West Side food market would have on the Saturday morning farmers’ market, which provides a weekly boost to Third Avenue shops. As a former Sturgeon Bay business owner remarked to me, the city often seems to be competing with itself.

Coming up next:

The West Waterfront Redevelopment Plan proclaims a desire to maintain a connection to the working waterfront. Does moving the tugboat operation accomplish this? Plus, Groenfeldt looks into the residential opportunities in the plan.

Part II