A new apartment building could be constructed on the St. Croix River bluff in Osceola, Wis. if proposed ordinance and zoning changes, and final designs, are approved. The village is currently considering relaxing several rules to allow for redevelopment of its former hospital site, which has been vacant for several years.
Having seen preliminary plans from Forest Lake-based Gaughan Companies, several community members are opposing what they describe as a threat to their historic small-town character and the St. Croix’s wild scenery.
Last year, Gaughan put forth a proposal for a 95-unit building at the site. No official designs have been decided on yet, but company representatives have said they are seeking to build a mixed-use property, with market-price apartments, townhomes, dining, and retail. Mock-ups and site plans provided to the village show a four-story structure facing the river, perched at the edge of the bluff, with a façade of black, brown, tan, and gray.
The village’s planning commission will consider zoning ordinance changes to facilitate the project at its Feb. 27 meeting. The amendments would allow for residential development on the first floor of buildings in Osceola’s central business district, as well as other land use rules that could affect the development. It’s the first of several changes designed to help the potential development project proceed.
‘Gross urban intrusion’
Neighbors and river advocates say the proposed building would dwarf surrounding buildings, changing the historic nature of Osceola’s downtown area and degrading the river.
“The entire structure as now proposed will be a gross urban intrusion into the scenic character of the most popular landing and picnic area on the entire St. Croix River,” said Osceola resident Mark Kozlak.
He points out that the designs already submitted by the developer show the building will be a maximum of 55 feet tall on the side facing the river, exceeding the tree line by more than two stories. Proposed changes to the village’s zoning would increased the allowable height for the development, based on whether or not it’s visible from the middle of the river during the summer months, when there are leaves on the trees.
But, while it might be concealed to people on the water, it will be visible from other parts of the National Scenic Riverway. Visitors to Osceola Landing, the busiest boat launch and picnic area on the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway, will see it. Hikers on the Simenstad Trail atop Picnic Bluff, which provides views of the river, the valley, and the historic main street of Osceola, will see the two-acre development. People walking and driving downtown will also see it.
“The east side will loom over the existing one-story historic buildings and be visible from Cascade Street for blocks,” Kozlak said.
The site of the proposed development juts out over a ravine leading down to the river. It sits high above the valley, long a popular spot with humans. Kozlak said all accounts show that there are Native American burial grounds at the site, as well as the graves of early white settlers. Even Leroy Hubbard, the first white person to die in Osceola in 1844 and who the town was briefly named for, is buried there.
The Wisconsin state archaeologist has already sent a letter to the village that the site hosts numerous historic cultural resources. The archaeologist said no digging can be done without prior notification to the state, and a state archaeologist must be present during any digging.
“The footprint of the Gaughan proposed big box will eliminate any opportunity to preserve the antiquities and make impossible a public viewing and interpretation,” Kozlak said.
For now, the village and the community members are focused on the proposed changes to the zoning ordinances. Activists say it will take away the village’s authority to review and permit numerous types of development, the language is often vague and easily misunderstood, it could cause parking and traffic problems, and more.
There are also significant concerns about emergency access to the site. The large building on the edge of the bluff, with narrow streets for access, presents a challenge in the event of a fire.
“I want the Commission to really be looking into this stuff before this site gets approved,” Elfstrom told the Planning Commission at a meeting last year. He also said there might not be enough fire hydrants in the area to provide sufficient water to fight a fire at such a large structure.
Once the planning commission has reviewed the ordinance changes, the village council will have the final say in whether or not to make them. If they do, the developers would need to apply for conditional use permits for the project, including one that would allow a building height of 45 feet, rather than the standard 35 feet for that zone. The application and review are expected to come between now and April.
Updated Feb. 24, 2023
Local citizens’ report on proposed zoning changes: