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Editorials
A park to mark the end of a sooty era PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 10 July 2013 14:47

Coal Dock Park will give the public access to the beauties of Lake Michigan on land that once was the source of chronic pollution

The repurposing of the land on the lake side of the Port Washington power plant is so dramatic that it can truly be said, to resurrect an ancient aphorism, that the city has made a “silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”

    Sow’s ear indeed. For nearly 70 years, the land was host to a certified blight—the power plant’s coal pile. “Pile” understates the degree of blight. It was a mountain of fossilized carbon that gave off a black, gritty dust that could be seen, smelled and even tasted over much of Port Washington.

    Southeast winds carried the grit into the downtown and beyond. Pockets of spontaneous combustion frequently burned in the mounded coal for days, sending up an acrid smoke that seemed to color the air a faintly yellow hue and was distributed around the city by the lake breezes.

    Thus did the coal-burning power plant produce its smut at both the beginning and the end of the electricity-making process—when the raw coal was stored and moved into the plant to fire boilers and when its smoke and unburned residue of carbon and sulphur were emitted from the plant’s stacks.

    That is now history that will fade fast from memory as the one-time home of the source of that nuisance is transformed into Coal Dock Park—the silk purse.

      The charm of the park, which will open in a few weeks, will not be about what is in it, but what is around it. On filled lake bottom, the park juts into Lake Michigan and is embraced by its waters on three sides, inviting visitors to experience an intimacy with the lake rarely found on public lands.


    The city’s work has mainly been to civilize the place, to make it green and provide for walking and lake viewing. This restrained treatment of the former coal repository is just right for this stage in the park’s development.     A community brainstorming exercise, though it produced no definitive plan, yielded a plethora of ideas for the development of Coal Dock Park, including building a community center there. But it would be premature to proceed with that idea even if funding were available, for the location is so extraordinary that nothing ordinary in purpose or design should go there.

    Maybe one day . . . something special. Think of Milwaukee’s Calatrava.

    In the meantime, the new park achieves something for the city that may be unique in Wisconsin. It completes the chain of public lakeside walkways that covers the entire waterfront, from the north beach, around the marina and through the downtown, over Sauk Creek and now through Coal Dock Park and the adjacent bird sanctuary to the south beach.

     Also important, the new park maintains (and actually improves) a remnant of its former life—the deep-water dock where coal freighters once moored to unload their sooty cargoes. An asset that many small ports don’t have, the deep-water facility will be a boon to tall ship festivals and perhaps other beneficial uses in the future, such as visits by cruise ships.

    Not mentioned so far in this paean to Coal Dock Park is the 8,000-pound gorilla (OK, more like 8-million-pound gorilla) that broods over it—the massive gas-fired power plant.

    Yes, it’s a daunting presence looming over the park. Locals may have come to terms with it, but it’s a startling sight to visitors who wonder what the city was thinking when it allowed it on the lakefront. It shouldn’t be there, of course. After the better part of a century enduring the coal plant, Port Washington deserved a future without a power plant on its lakefront.

    That didn’t happen, but one of the consolation prizes in the negotiation over the new plant was what is now Coal Dock Park. And a valuable prize it is—as both a piece of the lakefront the public can call its own and a symbol of the end of Port Washington’s coal dust era.


 
The rewards of living small PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Tuesday, 02 July 2013 14:22

Subdivisions in Belgium and Port Washington are putting a bright new face on the old concept of compact, walkable neighborhoods

Even as American families have shrunk, their houses have grown. In 1970, the average family size was 3.14 persons, compared to just over 2.5 today. Forty-three years ago, those 3.14 people lived in houses that averaged 1,400 square feet. Today’s 2.5-person families live in houses that are nearly double that size with an average of 2,700 square feet.

    A meeting of the Village of Belgium Plan Commission last week offered a revealing gauge of the changes reflected in the above numbers. To accommodate a promising development, the commission recommended creation of a new zoning district that would allow 1,500-square-foot house on lots 50 feet wide. The decision was needed because homes and lots that small are currently not permitted under Belgium zoning.

    The commission did the right thing, and the Village Board should ratify the recommendation when it meets on July 8. The new zoning will facilitate the creation of the compact neighborhood envisioned for the New Luxembourg subdivision.

    The houses, small by today’s standards, but with three bedrooms and two bathrooms more than ample for families with children, are in keeping with the development’s inspiration, the country of Luxembourg, ancestral home of many Belgium area families. Houses in Luxembourg as in most of Europe, a continent that lacks America’s broad spaces, tend to be small by American standards.

     Despite the traditional European influence, it would be wrong to assume the subdivision will be old fashioned or quaint. On the contrary, it is part of a burgeoning movement in the U.S. toward neighborhoods that concentrate homes within walking distance of shopping and recreational areas.


    The trend is new, but its roots reach to a time when smaller houses and yards were the comfortable norm. Examples can be found in the old neighborhoods on Port Washington’s near southwest side, where rows of two-story homes sit on narrow lots, some as close to a neighbor’s dwelling as the 15 feet planned in the Belgium subdivision. The properties have deep backyards with space for garages that, unlike some of today’s outsized manses that flaunt triple garage bays on their fronts, are hidden behind the homes.

    Generations of Port Washington children grew up in these neighborhoods, playing with packs of neighbor kids, walking to schools and playgrounds.

    A modern iteration of that way of living is finding considerable success in a development on Port Washington’s Division Street. On a rare parcel of vacant land only a few blocks from the city center, small two-story houses are going up on lots of about half an acre.

    The development, called the Terraces at Mineral Springs, is inspired by older neighborhoods and, in a nod to one of the sensible features of that era, requires garages to be placed in back of the houses.

    The modest-sized dwellings in the compact, walkable neighborhoods springing up in various parts of the country lend themselves to energy efficiency with smaller spaces to heat and cool. Capturing solar energy to power the house has proven to be practical in such houses.     

    Small  houses with close neighbors are not everyone’s cup of tea, That’s evident, for example, in the Town of Grafton, where farmland is being converted to subdivisions featuring expansive lots and mega-square-foot houses. Such homes remain the dream of many Americans. Nothing wrong with it—there is something to be said for unrestricted space, inside and outside.

    But one thing is certain, the families enjoying that style of living will be spending a lot more time in motor vehicles than the residents of developments like New Luxembourg and the Terraces at Mineral Springs.



 
Everyone should pay for sidewalks PDF Print E-mail
News
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 26 June 2013 14:00

Every street should have sidewalks, but the policy of assessing only the property owner for their cost should be discarded out of fairness

Port Washington natives Don and Virginia Laubenstein have lived in their modest house on Summit Drive for 47 years. They raised their children there, paid their taxes (hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years), carefully maintained and improved their property and during their working years and in retirement —Don had a long career as Port Washington police officer—have been responsible, contributing citizens of their hometown. And then they get a bill from the city for $3,104 for sidewalks to be installed this summer.

    What’s wrong with this picture? It’s not the sidewalks. It’s the city’s policy of making property owners pay for building sidewalks.


    Sidewalks are facilities necessary for the safety and convenience of the public, and they should be paid for by all city taxpayers. If the sidewalks that will cross the Laubensteins’ property were financed out of general tax revenue, the cost to city taxpayers would average about a dollar each. Under the policy in effect in Port Washington, only the Laubensteins will get the bill, and it will be 3,000 times as much.


    That policy is manifestly unfair, yet the city can easily defend it. It’s the norm. A majority of Wisconsin municipalities charge property owners for new sidewalks. Port Washington, in fact, is more generous than many communities in that while it charges property owners to install sidewalks, it no longer assesses for sidewalk repair. None of this, however, makes the treatment of the Laubensteins and the other Port residents who have received sidewalk assessments this year and in the past right.

    The power to levy special assessments for elements of civic infrastructure is rooted in the long legal history of American municipalities, but if it ever made sense for sidewalks, it doesn’t today. Planners have come to understand the importance of communities accommodating citizens who choose to, or have to, walk. Sidewalks are essential for walking safety. It should be the responsibility of the entire community, not individual property owners, to provide them.

    Nearly all of the property owners who appeared at last week’s Common Council meeting to protest sidewalk assessments claimed the sidewalks to be installed on their property aren’t needed. We disagree. Streets should have sidewalks. No one should have to walk in the street. The problem is not the sidewalks. It’s how they’re paid for.


    Sidewalk assessments are so unpopular and the source of so much distracting conflict that they are counterproductive to the goal of expanding sidewalk coverage. The city’s policy of not charging property owners for sidewalk repair is sensible but confusing. If it’s the city’s responsibility to maintain sidewalks, why isn’t it the city’s responsibility to pay to build them?


    A number of enlightened communities in various parts of the country have stopped inflicting the inequity of sidewalk assessments on their citizens, and Port Washington should join them.


    Weaning the city off sidewalk assessments in a time of tax levy limits is not be easy. But it should be done because sidewalks are not an optional amenity—they’re a requirement that should be a shared responsibility.

 
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