U-Haul official cites desire to ‘blend in’ as La Crosse residents quiz him on old Kmart plans

LA CROSSE, Wis. — U-Haul wants “to blend in with the city, not be against it,” a company official told participants in a virtual meeting Monday night who quizzed his plans for the vacant former Kmart building on the city’s South Side.

Up to 50 residents and city officials tuned in to the Bluffside Neighborhood Association meeting, raising concerns about the appearance, landscaping, lighting, potential traffic, and other issues if U-Haul buys the building at Losey Boulevard and State Road.

The building has been vacant since Kmart closed in 2017, and city officials, neighbors and new owners George Parke and Festival had hoped to find a buyer who would develop it into mixed-use of retail and residential — with no takers.

Neighborhood residents had emailed city officials expressing dismay about the building’s becoming a U-Haul facility, but questions and comments were civil during the Zoom meeting.

U-Haul has a purchase contract but has not bought the building as yet.

The company is using part of the building now as a retail store but intends to self-storage and truck rental, explained Adam Sonnleitner, president of the U-Haul Company of Southwestern Wisconsin and Rockford.

“We’re looking to invest quite a bit of money into the city, and that’s where we are,” said Sonnleitner, who guesstimated that the company might spend $4 million to $7 million in upgrades to the facility.

U-Haul moved 12,000 people in the city last year, overtaxing its building at 2134 Rose St., he said.

“We have more customers than we can serve with the current building,” he said, noting that U-Haul plans 600 to 700 storage units inside the building, and 20 to 30 trucks and trailers outside.

U-Haul is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and Saturdays, with shorter hours on Sunday, at the building now and would expand hours to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and shorter hours on Sundays if it is able to buy the building, Sonnleitner said.

Bluffside co-chair Jim Bagniefski asked whether U-Haul would consider adding a story to the building, with apartments on the second floor.

U-Haul has repurposed about 120 abandoned Kmarts across the country, Sonnleitner said, adding, “We use the buildings instead of tearing them down.”

The company does not add apartments to its developments, he said.

Wendy Butler, who lives on Heritage Court near the building, acknowledged that she has seen other U-Haul redevelopments of Kmarts and said they appear attractive.

A relative in South Carolina who is involved with real estate told Butler the building there is nicely landscaped, although neighbors complain about bright lights.

Robert Fischer voiced concern that the lot might end up being as much of a distraction as what he said excess lighting is on a closed used car dealership on Hwy. 16.

“I can see it (the Kmart) from my house. It’s between me and the bluff, and I don’t want” to deal with light pollution, Fischer said.

Sonnleitner said he doubted that the lighting would be any brighter than that from the Festival Foods store across the street.

He also would be amenable to include trees with the landscaping, as some participants suggested, as long as they didn’t block the building from view.

Jed Olson asked whether the city could stipulate lighting limits, green space, and tree cover.

Senior City Planner Tim Acklin said the property zoning needs to be changed to heavy industrial to be used as a storage facility, and a conditional use permit might be possible regarding lighting.

However, granting a conditional use permit would require evidence to support a claim of light pollution, Acklin said.

Sonnleitner also anticipates that traffic would increase only minimally because the average U-Haul has 31 visits a day.

“Some of us are all for it, especially the tax base,” said Dianne Bosshard. “I’m glad it’s going to be used and I’m glad it’s going to add to the tax base.”

U-Haul’s application for a zoning change would have to go to the city’s Planning Commission, then to the Judiciary and Administration Committee, both of which would include public hearings, before going to the Common Council, Acklin said.

If a certain percentage of property owners object, he said, the zoning would need a super-majority council approval.