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St. Norbert College looking to buy Wilson park for housing

By Lee Reinsch

DE PERE – St. Norbert College wants to buy one of the oldest parks west of the Fox River to build upscale student housing for college juniors and seniors.

The De Pere Board of Park Commissioners considered whether to sell Wilson Park, located at the corner of Fourth Street and College Avenue, at its meeting last month.

“This is the only publicly-held green space between the railroad tracks and the river,” Commissioner Jim Kneiszel said. “We’re currently doing so much on the east side with public space and public land, and now what we’re talking about is taking away this one, albeit small, park from the west side.”

Wilson Park is a mini-park, designed to be an oasis of green in an urban setting, and to serve people within walking distance of it. 

On Oct. 25, 1924, the City of De Pere dedicated land it purchased from the De Pere School District as a park. 

According to an 1889 plat map, it was the site of the 1st Ward School. 

At half an acre, it has two swing sets, about three-dozen trees and two memorials. 

One memorial is a 105-year-old concrete and bronze Gettysburg Address plaque, donated in 1916 by James Hughes, a U.S. Representative (from 1933-35) and member of the De Pere Board of Education (from 1914-37). 

The other is a weeping crabapple tree, a memorial for Jessica Martin, a SNC student who died suddenly in 2004. 

The park is surrounded on three sides mostly by property owned by SNC.

“The park does not do a very good job of being a park in this current area,” Marty Kosobucki, director of Parks, Recreation and Forestry said. “It does a wonderful job of providing passive aesthetics. However, its purpose as a mini-park has diminished quite a bit.”

SNC wants the extra space not because of booming enrollment, but to stay competitive.

“One of the things that we want to make sure we’re doing is we’re keeping up with the times, and we’re providing the services that the future students are going to be expecting,” Dave Nalepka, director of risk and property management for St. Norbert College, said. “There’s going to be a lot of challenges going forward with a smaller and smaller number of students becoming available.”

He said people aren’t having as many children, and the number of graduating high school seniors is down.

Preliminary renderings for the student housing showed a 10-room building that could house 20 students. 

Each room would have its own bathroom. 

Nalepka didn’t say how many structures the college wanted to build.  

He said the college tried to make an offer on privately-owned property to the south of Wilson Park, but wasn’t able to arrive at a suitable price.

No purchase price for Wilson Park was listed in the meeting packet. 

Commissioner Ryan Jennings said the GIS map image demonstrated the sheer amount of ownership SNC has in the area.

“Everybody wants land,” he said. “They clearly have a lot of other options to build. They could put their buildings over the top of the existing parking lot and still have parking underneath. They have unlimited options; this is just a convenient open space, and you never get land back.”

Alderperson and Park Commissioner Amy Chandik Kundinger, who is also a SNC employee, said the purchase wouldn’t be so much taking greenspace away as adding community space on the campus for the public to enjoy. 

She said she would recuse herself from the vote.

Kneiszel said although the campus is beautiful and the public is welcome at certain campus events, most people wouldn’t feel comfortable just hanging out there. 

“I know that you can just walk through SNC as a non-student, but that is not the same as a public park – not even close,” he said. “I do not feel like it’s my public place to be, and when I look at the aerial photo on Wilson Park, you see a lot of parking lots and a lot of rooftops. There is a lot of open space that St. Norbert has toward the river.”

Kneiszel said at the very least, the city needs to open bids to the public, not just one party.

The board delayed making a decision until the Nov. 18 meeting. 

If it recommends a sale, it would need to be finalized by the De Pere Common Council. 

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