Panel favors lifting cap, dealing with controversial issue on case-by-case basis
How tall is too tall for a downtown Port Washington building is a question that’s been debated for decades.
Last week, the Plan Commission recommended that the Common Council eliminate the current 61-foot maximum height restriction for downtown buildings.
The city shouldn’t set an arbitrary height restriction, members said, but instead consider each project on its own merits.
“It would be unlimited, in theory,” Public Works Director Rob Vanden Noven, a member of the commission, said.
The city has learned a lot from its history in terms of dealing with tall buildings, commission members said, adding that officials will be guided not only by that experience but also public opinion.
“If you suggest a 95-foot-tall building, you’re going to be run out of town,” said Randy Tetzlaff, the city’s director of planning and development.
Tetzlaff ran through a history of the height limitations, beginning in the 1970s, when the maximum downtown building height was increased from 35 feet to 85 feet.
There was a significant amount of controversy when the city approved the Lighthouse Condominiums on Lake Street, he said.
That building was allowed because it met the 85 foot limit and was on the outskirts of the downtown, where taller buildings were considered acceptable.
But due to the backlash from that project, the city repealed the overlay district that allowed it, Tetzlaff said, essentially allowing only 35-foot-tall structures.
But that was considered too restrictive as well, and eventually the city allowed developers to seek a special exception to the regulations that would allow a building to be as tall as 61 feet — the average height of the Harbor Square development on the southeast corner of Grand Avenue and Wisconsin Street.
Last year, the city approved a special exception for the proposed Harbour Lights development on Franklin Street, which will be about 50 feet high.
“Ever since, I’ve had people ask why (restrict it to) 61 feet,” Tetzlaff said.
If the city is scrutinizing projects while considering the special exception, he said, officials should be able to consider projects taller than 61 feet.
“If you’re going throught the process for a special exception, is there anything so special about 61 feet?” he asked. “We might want to just analyze the benefits of the project.
“What if it is a great design and it’s 64 feet? Our hands are tied.”
Commission member Bud Sova, who has been on the commission through several bouts of debate on the question of building heights, said a 1993 survey of city residents — taken after the Lighthouse condos were built — revealed that tall buildings were taboo.
Part of residents’ frustration was that people were told the condo building would not rise above the top of the bluff, but that promise was broken, Tetzlaff said.
“I can guarantee we don’t want to call (the building height limit) 85 feet,” Sova said. “That would block a lot of sightlines. It would be quite bad.”
The issue of building heights goes back much further, he added, noting that there was a controversy years earlier when an elevator shaft was erected atop what is today the Holiday Inn Harborview.
That said, tall buildings can be attractive and tasteful, Sova said, adding there are checks and balances in place to ensure these structures are done well.
“It can be done. It can be done tastefully,” he said.
The primary limitation, he said, is public opinion.
“Moving forward, this council and this commission learned a lot,” Tetzlaff said.