Thursday, January 9, 2020

Oshkosh unveils its vision for 'Sawdust District,' a plan to turn south side into entertainment, housing magnet

This rendering shows how the Sawdust District neighborhood would be subdivided for planning purposes.

By Miles Maguire

The city has unveiled a master plan for development of the Sawdust District on the city’s south side that calls for constructing new townhouses, maintaining landmark buildings, relocating some industrial businesses and putting Main Street on a road diet.

The area once hummed with economic activity--especially involving lumber products and beer--but is now a patchwork of new development, vacant land, historic structures, single-family homes, small commercial businesses and a handful of industrial sites. The master plan is an attempt to jumpstart the redevelopment process by describing what the future could hold.

“This is an opportunity to redevelop this area so that it helps attract more investment into Oshkosh as well as more residents and workforce,” said Allen Davis, the city’s community development director. “The plan creates a walkable area with entertainment, office, retail, housing and greenspace, making it attractive for many complementary uses for the future.”

The term Sawdust District, which is only about three years old, refers to the slice of the city that runs along Lake Winnebago from the Fox River to 17th Avenue. Its western boundary includes a couple of doglegs and is defined mostly by Nebraska, Main and Doty streets.

“The Sawdust District is the place to watch,” said Mayor Lori Palmeri. “Oshosh is on the move, and the Sawdust District is a key piece of it.” She believes the area has the potential to rival Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward as a magnet for entertainment, business and residential opportunities.

If the plan is fully enacted, the resulting neigborhood will be a “pedestrian-friendly environment … enhanced by thoughtful streetscaping and roadway design,” according to a vision statement that is part of the master plan.

In this forecast, “People choose to live in the district due to the great quality of life supported by a diversity of housing options and convenient proximity to amenities, including shopping, lake and riverfront open spaces, trail connections and a unique industrial heritage.”

“The Sawdust District plan will direct growth, development and infrastructure investment by providing guidance through recommendations, strategies and policies with an ultimate goal of redeveloping the neighborhood,” said City Manager Mark Rohloff. 

The plan is built on four “guiding principles”:
  • Encourage new options for housing and office space that will attract people to support stores and restaurants, what is known in real estate terms as “mixed use” development.
  • Create a pedestrian-oriented neighborhood, especially along South Main Street.
  • Preserve historic structures that contribute to the “eclectic character” of the district.
  • “Embrace the waterfront” to establish the area as a “lively and valuable community gathering space.”
“I think it’s a compelling plan. I think it’s very ambitious,” said John Casper, president of the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce. “It provides a good guide for the community to show a kind of a vision to anyone who is looking to invest in that district.”

The plan divides the neighborhood into six subareas. In each, specific proposals are organized under the headings of land use, transportation, design and public spaces.

A major new direction for land use would be an emphasis on residential housing, especially townhouses and apartments. The plan envisions “siginificant opportunity” for multifamily housing, “including in new lakefront development areas near the [Pioneer Island] marina, on either side of 10th Avenue and at the south end of the district.”

Especially to the north, waterfront-oriented housing “should be developed at a variety of price points in rental and condo configurations to serve young professionals, senior residents and workforce residents,” the plan states.

The area’s manufacturing heritage will be largely erased, a process that has already begun with the construction of the Menominee Nation Arena at the site of the old Buckstaff factory. “The existing industrial character is somewhat out of place with the surrounding Oshkosh neighborhoods, and many of the existing land uses are not of the highest quality,” the plan states.

“Certain industrial businesses will need to be voluntarily relocated to designated industrial parks,” according to the plan. But the city is encouraged to consolidate some land to support expansion of Blended Waxes Inc. at the south end of the district. 

General design guidance is included for each subarea, describing, for example, the height of buildings and the nature of their facades. "For the district to be successful, attention must be given to the built form and design of future development and its relationship to other structures and spaces," the plan says.

The document raises some potentially tricky transportation issues. One is the 20-trains-a-day right of way owned by the Canadian National Railway. “With no grade-separated railroad crossings, the rail line threatens connectivity between Pioneer Island and the rest of the Sawdust District,” the plan notes.

Increased pedestrian and bicycle traffic could mean more safety risks that will have to be addressed. Another problem is that rail yards can be an eyesore. “Beautification elements, such as landscaping, decorative street lights or new railroad gates, should be incorporated to decrease the relatively industrial character and improve the overall appearance of the corridor,” according to the plan.

An element that may provoke some debate is a plan to shift the emphasis on Main Street away from its traditional use as a high-volume corridor for vehicles.

“Within the next two to three years, the city should restripe South Main Street to designate on-street parking, two travel lanes and a central turning lane,” the plan says. The long-term recommendation is to acquire land to the east to allow for wider sidewalks and tree plantings between Eighth Avenue and South Park.

Ultimately the city is looking for a makeover of the neighborhood, creating a distinctive sense of place through new lighting, signage and public spaces.

“Places where people can gather to eat, chat or people-watch should be developed to bring people together and contribute to the liveliness of the district,” the plan says. “The district’s flagship plaza-style public gathering space should be on the southeast corner of Pioneer Island, oriented toward visitors and residents alike.”

Implementation of the plan will depend on a variety of factors, including citizen reception, approval of public spending on infrastructure and incentives, economic conditions and the cost of remediating environmental hazards from previous industrial uses.

But officials are optimistic about the prospects for the Sawdust District. “Redevelopment takes a lot of time,” said Jason White, president of the Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corp.

In the case of the Sawdust District, he said, many property owners and developers have been involved in the planning so that they are closer to moving ahead with specific projects. They “have been waiting for some kind of plan to emerge so they can plan their futures,” White said.

“The good news is that [redevelopment] will happen sooner as the result of having a lot of these folks engaged already.”

The public will get a chance to provide feedback at an open house on Jan. 29. The plan will then go to the Plan Commission Feb. 18 and the Common Council Feb. 25.


  1. Very exciting. So glad to see such thought and care being put into this plan. Well never go wrong investing in Oshkosh.

  2. Now let's not lose Ardy & Ed's, in the process of these changes mentioned above. Oshkosh is growing, but also doesn't need to lose landmark businesses, in the process.