Members of Port board worried that commercial component of subdivision could hurt downtown shops
Port Washington’s Design Review Board got its first glimpse at the proposed Prairie’s Edge development for the south bluff Tuesday, and while most of the planned development is residential, board members spent much of their time debating what type of commercial businesses might go on the land.
Black Cap Halcyon, a Milwaukee real estate investment firm, is negotiating with the city to buy 44 acres of bluff land for $2.86 million.
The firm wants to build 236 housing units on the land — more than the original 195 units because the company has reduced the amount of commercial space proposed for the development by almost half, Randy Tetzlaff, the city’s director of planning and development, said.
The developer is seeking between $1.2 million and $1.5 million from the city to pay for public amenities on the property, such as trails and a staircase to the beach, City Administrator Mark Grams said.
That amount is significantly less than the $4.1 million the company originally proposed, because the city is not considering the firm’s original plan to buy an adjacent 11-acre parcel owned by We Energies and developing it. The developer had planned to seek $2.1 million from the city for public improvements on that land, Grams said.
But it was Black Halcyon’s plan to build 21,600 square feet of commercial space in the development — significantly less than the firm originally proposed, that took up much of the discussion.
The fear is that any commercial development on the bluff will take business away from downtown, board member Jorgen Hansen said.
Specialized businesses such as a fitness center might be appropriate, Hansen said, “but things that pull people in from the street should stay downtown.”
The health of the downtown depends on that, he said, adding the city has too much invested to risk diminishing the area.
It’s already difficult for downtown businesses when new stores open up on the outskirts of the city, Hansen added.
But Public Works Director Rob Vanden Noven, chairman of the board, questioned that approach, saying the city should encourage any development that will draw people into the city.
“If you’re drawing people to Port from outside of Port, you’re bringing them into the city and they’ll discover what we have to offer,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘Let’s go walk around the marina. Let’s go bowling.’
“I can see it as an extension and a complement to downtown. I don’t know what you could put there that could be detrimental to downtown.”
Vanden Noven also said he believes there is a benefit to having a destination, such as a coffeeshop, in the development that neighbors can walk to.
“We don’t want to have a strip mall,” he said.
Tetzlaff noted that when officials sought development plans for the south bluff land, they specified commercial development that wouldn’t compete with businesses already in downtown was acceptable.
Acceptable businesses could include offices, medical facilities, child care services and physical therapy, he said.
Black Cap Halcyon “understands our desire to be protective of downtown,” Tetzlaff said.
At the same time, he said, “a lot of people have suggested this would be good for a work-live-play” subdivision.
Black Cap Halcyon has also been responsive to city concerns about its proposal, Tetzlaff added.
It moved a 35-unit apartment building planned for the south end of the development to the north end at the city’s suggestion, Tetzlaff said — a move that will keep the most dense housing nearest to downtown while allowing the larger, more open areas to be kept on the south, adjoining town property.
But concerns about the commercial property weren’t all the board questioned.
Board members asked where people who want to access the trails and beach would park.
“If you’re going to have public access (to the beach), you need a place to park,” board member Marc Eernisse said. “You don’t want to park at St. Vinnie’s.”
They offered some general comments on the plan as well.
“I like the feel of it,” Hansen said. “But it will depend on how well the architecture is executed.”
Tetzlaff noted that a city review committee liked the development plan, particularly the use of pocket neighborhoods and the east-west orientation of the neighborhoods that allow view corridors to the lake.
“This particular design encourages access to the bluff area,” he added, noting that the other development proposals for the property felt less inviting to the public.
The Plan Commission will review the development proposal when it meets at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 16.