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Tuesday, 12 April 2011
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Wauwatosa Planning Commission Follies

As has become my custom of late, I decided to head down to the Wauwatosa Planning Commission meeting last night. Once you realize how things work, it becomes pretty clear that the Common Council meetings aren't all that important. If you want to see how plans get shaped, molded, stopped or changed, you need to go to the Planning Commission. Among a laundry list of items on the agenda were two that I was primarily interested in. The first was a proposal to build a new Walmart Grocery Store on 124th near Capitol, where the Jewel-Osco used to be. The second was a preliminary plan for redevelopment to take place in the "Burleigh Triangle", which is an area just east of US-45 on the north side of Burleigh Ave.

Walmart Proposal

Walmart's seem to attract a lot of attention wherever they go, and they tend to collect quite a gathering of people who don't want them. Frankly, when I went up to speak in favor of the proposal, I did so anticipating people would be there against it. As it turns out, nobody came to speak against it, but I didn't know that until after I had offered my comments. What was interesting was everything that went on before public comment was allowed. In an unusual break from the standard procedure, the Mayor spent quite some time quizzing the Walmart representative. Most of these questions were regarding the size of the store, and the fact that it was for groceries only, and not for any consumer products. Finally, she ended with the statement "I do not want a Walmart in Wauwatosa", referring to a traditional big box Walmart.

When I went up to provide my (and as it turns out, the only) public comment, I chastised the Mayor (and some of the commissioners) for making Walmart tap dance around, and create a such a fuss over a store that should have every right to do business in the city. The Mayor seemed to be surprised that I thought Wauwatosa was being hostile to Walmart. She said that the city had never asked Walmart to downsize their project. Of course, given the Mayor's general attitude towards Walmart, which she made perfectly clear when she said she didn't want one just a few minutes earlier, it seems obvious that Walmart very well could have come with a smaller project to begin with because they knew that was the only one they could get away with. For her to say "I don't want a Walmart" and then fane surprise when her comments are viewed as hostile is naive at best.

In the end, the proposal passed, but it is clear that the proposal had been very specially tailored to meet the personal preferences of the Mayor, and some of the Commissioners. You can read more about the proposal, including a quote from me, at WauwatosaNOW.

Burleigh Triangle

This was one expensive meeting for the developers of the area. There were at least a dozen consultants there, many of whom spoke with a Power Point presentation to the Commissioners.  At their hourly rates, I can image that one meeting costing their client several thousand dollars. Once the very long presentation was over, it was time for Gloria Stearns to go to work. She had a list of 17 items that she wanted changed in the proposal. The city, as it often times enjoys doing, created a "Master Plan" for the site that was supposed to guide future development. Of course, by Master Plan, we're really talking about ideas that the Commissioners have for how other people should spend their own money, even if it doesn't make sense in the long run.

Despite the developer's research that showed that Office Space and Residential development down was significantly decreased during the current economic downturn, Commissioner Stearns was very concerned over the lack of Office Space in the proposed plan (a reduction from that which was proposed in the City's Master Plan). The master plan called for a "mixed use" development, which has become all the rage in a "walkable neighborhood" even if the demand doesn't exist for it. She even had a spreadsheet with what she estimated was the potential salary differences in the jobs provided with and without the office space. She even went on the internet to Salary.com for her data, so clearly it's got to be accurate.

She also wanted to make sure there were no roof top signs, because "those aren't Wauwatosa". As far as I know, the city has no ordinance against such signs... she just doesn't like them, so you'd better not have them. She also wants to make sure that native plants are used (she seemed rather obsessed with native plants), and that any second story windows which appeared to be fake would not be tolerated.

Once again, the Commission moved the proposal forward, but indicated that all seventeen items would need to be addressed in order to gain final approval. The vast majority of these items weren't regarding safety, traffic, sewer or flood water management, which would all be appropriate items to be concerned with. Most of these items were concerned with aesthetics and whether it was the "proper type of development" that the commissioners wanted.

It's important to note, as Commissioner Albert pointed out, that several "Master Plans" for the site have come and gone, and none have been implemented. In fact, this is really the first time that a group of private developers have come forward and been willing to take a risk on the site. While their plan may not match the current "Master Plan", that is not important. They have put their own money forward on this, and therefore have a vested interest in ensuring that the project is successful, because they are taking all the risk. When that happens, the city has a duty to allow them to develop their land as they think is best, because they have everything to lose. The city's responsibility should not be as an aesthetics governing board, but instead should ensure that the site would not cause flooding issues, and that traffic concerns are properly addressed. Everything else should be left to the developers. This is their land. They bought it. They own it.

This is not a game of Sim City. You can read more about the development at Wauwatosa Patch.

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