Sentry eyes own space for more parking; city recommends employees walk
By Brandi Makuski
Employee growth at the downtown location of Sentry Insurance increases the company’s need for onsite parking- but it’s proving an uphill battle for the local insurance giant.
Officials from Sentry this week sought permission from the city’s Historic Preservation/Design Review Commission (HPDRC) to remove green space on Clark Street-private property it already owns- to make room for an additional 30 parking spaces. Approval from the HPDRC was a necessary step, as the land is located in the downtown historic district.
“Our employee count is growing,” said Dennis Gruba, a representative of Sentry. “That’s a good thing for the community, so we’re hoping to expand the parking lot.”
But commissioners were not moved by the company’s growth or need for parking, saying the 441-foot space along Clark Street was home to the only significant green space in all of downtown and needed to be retained as part of the area’s beauty and historic value.
Community Development Director Michael Ostrowski said the city would not support the move, based largely on its guideline for mature trees, which dictates any trees greater than six inches and in good health should be retained. A review by the city forester indicated almost all the trees on the site were mature and healthy.
“The city forester indicated the removal of green space, and installation of a parking lot area, could be detrimental to those trees along Clark Street,” Ostrowski said, who referred to the area as a “pocket park”. “Given the way that block is situated, it does provide a nice street-line view, so staff would recommend [retaining] that area [as is].”
Gruba said Sentry was a “big fan of green space”, pointing to the lush landscaping at its corporate headquarters on Northpoint Drive and other office locations. He also said the existing Strongs Ave. parking lot had been remodeled- with additional green space added- last year, to help accommodate the need for parking. But now, he said the lot was more than 95 percent full on any given day.
Commissioner Tim Seibert told Gruba there were “very large” municipal parking lots available for use two blocks away. Employees could park there for free, he said, and walk to work.
Gruba said that wasn’t practical, especially in heavy weather and winter months, adding, “The preference is to be as close to the building as possible.”
Commissioner Garrett Ryan, who is also a city councilman, said Sentry should consider providing employees with health insurance discounts or other incentives if they carpool, or ride bicycles or small scooters to work, making parking less of an issue. Ryan also suggested it would encourage employees to live within walking distance of the building.
“An employee isn’t going to move to Stevens Point, or not move to Stevens Point, because they have to walk two blocks,” Ryan said. “I’m still not getting past the fact that you’re having an issue getting people to walk two blocks. It doesn’t sound like you put a whole lot of effort into that.”
Ryan also suggested the company should consider implementing reserve parking for senior-level employees and require some workers to park in the city’s municipal lots on Water Street.
“There are parking lots further out that are not being utilized,” Ryan said. “If you essentially force employees to park in one of those lots, like lots of other employers do…I mean, walking two blocks is not a big deal to do.”
Gruba said he wasn’t qualified to speak to health insurance incentives, but said the company already provides some of those options, including reserved parking for those who carpool and bike racks on the property, but it’s not enough.
The parking lot already has fewer stalls than required by city ordinance, but the company was allowed to operate this way because of a “constrained site” exemption within zoning codes. The 124,000-square-foot building should otherwise have 416 stalls, instead of 326, but there’s almost no room for expansion. Other large-scale companies in the city, to include Ministry St. Michael’s, are also granted exceptions under the clause.
The constrained site exemption was not discussed during the Nov. 4 meeting.
Several community members publicly objected to the proposal, including Tori Jennings and Trever Roark, members of the city’s new Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee, who argued additional parking was a “temporary fix” and only encouraged higher fossil fuel usage.
Dr. Kent Hall, a retired UWSP professor and organizer for Bird City Wisconsin, said the proposed lot expansion was not “Sentry-esque” as it did nothing to promote wellness or green space preservation, nor was it taking into consideration the birds which inhabited the trees on the site.
A letter of objection from Alderwoman Mary McComb was also made part of the record. Her letter reads, in part, “Have you ever walked through there on a hot day and noticed how cool the parklet is? That’s due to trees and grass. The lot would replace a significant grassy area with hard surface, again going against [g]uidelines. The walkway would be lost. So the parking lot would interfere with pedestrian mobility, defined in our [g]uidelines as part of a vibrant downtown. An additional parking lot once again privileges vehicles over other forms of transportation.”
The commission denied to request unanimously. Gruba said the company is open to “any option” offered by the city, and is also investigating costs for a possible multi-level parking structure on the site.