Yes, this is another editorial opposing the sale of public land at the north edge of Port Washington’s downtown marina for commercial development.
But before reading why this development is wrong for Port Washington, please study the photograph at right. It was taken in 1965 from a vantage point beside the north harbor slip looking directly at the site now proposed for a commercial building to be called the Blues Factory.
The huge building at the center of the photo sits exactly where the Blues Factory will be located if approved by the Common Council. The Blues Factory building, while not as high as that old Wisconsin Chair Co. manufacturing plant, would fill the space at the end of the harbor in much the same way.
The photo, made as people lined up to tour a Navy vessel during the city’s very first Fish Day celebration, is instructive too in that it shows the Port Washington lakefront in its crude state before it was remade into the beautiful place it is today with its refined and generous access to the beauty of Lake Michigan and its welcoming heart-of-the-city small-boat harbor and peninsular park.
The linchpin of that historic civic improvement was the removal of the chair factory buildings that once walled off the waterfront. It is a disturbing irony that in the push to bring commercial land use back to the lakefront the building proposed for the development is designed to resemble in some ways the chair factory plant in this picture.
Large numbers of Port Washington citizens have made it clear—with petitions to the city, letters to this newspaper, impassioned statements at meetings and hundreds of lawn signs—that they do not want lakefront land owned by the public sold to a developer for a building that will once again close off lake views.
Yet city officials are persisting and as early as next week may take another step toward selling the land for the Blues Factory. The Common Council has the power to do this, of course, but the question of how its members can consider it good public policy to force a development, which requires the sacrifice of public lakefront land and taxpayer subsidies for the developer, on a community that doesn’t want it defies a reasonable answer.
The best answer elected officials can come up with is that the land is wasted space in its current use as a parking lot and the city needs the economic development that would come from building the Blues Factory on it. That’s their story and they’re sticking to it—with the implication that people who oppose the land sale don’t understand the need to make the tax base grow.
The truth is that just about everyone here gets it about the importance of downtown development. It is telling that people who are responsible for the current resurging economic vitality of the downtown—business owners and operators who have invested in the downtown and stand to benefit from further economic growth—are among those who strongly oppose the Blues Factory proposal.
They understand that Port Washington’s appeal to investors, visitors and would-be new residents derives from its fortunate place on the shore of Lake Michigan and the civic improvements that invite the public to see and approach that priceless natural asset. They recognize the folly of compromising that asset for the benefit of a harborside business.
Acting on the obsolete and thoroughly discredited notion that nearness to the water and wonderful views make a piece of land such as the north slip parking lot an appropriate site for commercial development makes Port Washington an outlier among communities that are blessed with proximity to the water. From the Door County village of Sister Bay, which has purchased waterfront land from private owners to protect it for public use, to the metropolis of Chicago, which has turned lakeshore land worth hundreds of millions of dollars to developers into parks, municipalities are preserving public access to their waterfront land and prospering by doing it.
The drive to develop the Port Washington harbor site did not bloom organically to fill a need. Rather, it was spun, twisted and contorted to satisfy the mindset of officials to get something—anything—commercial on the parking lot land. First it was to be a brewpub. Then there was talk of a “destination shopping” outlet. But the only proposal the city received came from the Blues Factory developers, a proposal so open-ended and with such uncertain financing that it did not even include a defined offer to buy the land.
Since then city staff, elected officials and the developers have been meeting in an attempt to make the Blues Factory happen in spite of those uncertainties. Details haven’t been revealed, but it is all but certain that taxpayers will have to subsidize the development.
The Blues Factory deal will probably not include a solution to the marina parking problem it will create. The development will displace dozens of parking places while adding the need for more than 100 additional parking spaces. Harbor Commission members have voiced worries that marina business—a mainstay of the city economy—will suffer as a result.
For its part, The Blues Factory is a worthy concept that as the focus of an increasingly bitter controversy is a victim of a bad location choice. The history of the Paramount Records division of the Wisconsin Chair Co., especially its role in bringing legendary blues performers to this area in the early 20th century, deserves recognition, and developer Chris Long’s vision of a blues-oriented performance hall, restaurant, banquet facility and museum deserves support. But it does not deserve a lakefront location on public land. Had they been less fixated on developing the parking lot site, city officials should have been able to find a suitable place for it.
The relentless push to turn the north slip parking lot into commercial space has had a corrosive effect on the community. The ignoring of petitions opposing the sale signed by nearly 1,000 residents, the defiant statements by Mayor Tom Mlada and several aldermen that the land is going to be sold for development regardless of the public opposition that they characterize, incredibly and disingenuously, as a small minority of residents and the recurring closed meetings have soured a segment of the public on city government to the extent that there have even been a few comments (alluded to in a recent letter to the editor from Ald. Doug Biggs) alleging some sort of malfeasance by officials.
That should stop. There is no basis for such talk. These officials are honest men who want to do what is right for Port Washington.
But many thoughtful citizens who also want what’s best for the city, who have a clear understanding of the need to keep the public spaces that farsighted officials of the past created around the lakefront free of the clutter of development, think their elected representatives are wrong in their singleminded quest to sell the public lakefront land. They see them marching toward a mistake that will haunt the city for as long as the brick and mortar of the Factory building endure.
There are seven aldermen. Does not one of them worry they are making that mistake? Is no one on the Common Council open to admitting they have doubts? Is no one ready to voice those doubts and stand up to lead the city away from this mistake waiting to happen?