Ozaukee Square plan gets roughed up in Port

Residents pack meeting to express concerns about sweeping development proposal that calls for razing of City Hall

AMONG THE MANY Port residents who spoke at Tuesday’s Common Council meeting was Jason Wittek (right), who told aldermen he opposes the Ozaukee Square project because it calls for tearing down City Hall and the Old Theatre Square building. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

A standing room only crowd packed into Port Washington City Hall Tuesday, many of them expressing concerns over the Ozaukee Square project that would transform two blocks of downtown Port.

Most of the more than 15 people who spoke had concerns about the project proposed by Mequon developer Cindy Shaffer, and the vast majority of those concerns were about the speed at which the project is moving and the enormity of the plan, which would encompass two blocks near downtown Port.

“Slow your roll. We have a viable lakefront downtown community,” Brenda Shupe of Washington Street said. “Let’s really take our time and see what we want to do. We can only do this once. Let’s do it right. Let’s be very careful.”

Jason Wittek, 140 E. Woodruff St., told aldermen he does not support the project, adding he is “strongly in favor” of preserving City Hall and neighboring Old Theatre Square.

“I cannot support the wholesale demolition of properties on one side of a block for the promise of something new, no matter the assessed value,” Wittek said.

“What makes downtown Port Washington great is the collage of buildings found on 260 foot-by-360-foot blocks. Every 16 to 24 feet or so, you have a different building, a different architectural style, a different retailer or service. It is the sum of those individual buildings and the people within them that create great places.”

Ald. John Sigwart challenged Shaffer to come up with an alternative plan that preserves City Hall and Old Theatre Square, even if that means there would be an eight-story building along Milwaukee Street. Shaffer had proposed that tower but said Tuesday she lowered the building height baaed on community input.

“Is this all or nothing? What does it take to keep these two buildings in place?” Sigwart asked.

“I’m more than willing to look at it,” Shaffer said.

But Mayor Ted Neitzke said he did not want to see such a tall building on Milwaukee Street, nor on the county parking lot land, where he said the building could be dug into the ground more so the height is lower.

“Going up five to six stories would change things,” he said.

Several people urged aldermen to take residents’ concerns seriously, saying that their experience opposing the former Blues Factory proposal for the north marina parking lot only to have the plan approved by the city left them feeling as if they had no voice.

“So many of us are concerned about the results of the Blues Factory (building proposal) and how the wishes of the citizens were not taken into consideration,” Sue Didier said.

She suggested officials should focus on infrastructure needs such as impending improvements to the water and wastewater plants and improving emergency services first.

Paul Schueller of Nautica Drive said when he expressed that view to one official, they said “that’s exactly why we should do the project, we need the revenue.”

“That is massively scary to me,” Schueller said, adding officials shouldn’t look for revenue and ignore aesthetics and the character of the community.

“I look forward to us not jumping at the first shiny object that comes along,” he said.

  The fact the plan would encompass City Hall and include a new library bothered some other people.

“It seems to me this town has a real penchant to knock things down,” Shane Schmutzler of Patrick Court said. “We have different parts of the city, it doesn’t all look the same. We have things that are different looking, unique. It’s amazing how many towns are starting to look all the same.

“I really think we need to be aware of what we’re doing before you knock it down. Slow down and think. I don’t know what the rush is.”

Burt Babcock of West Main Street told aldermen he is “disappointed to see another pending development that does not have as its backbone the things that make Port Washington a great place to live — smaller scale houses, its main street, marina and many views of the lake. The design of this development does not show the character of uniqueness of Port Washington.

“To me, the proposed plans appear similar to a Highway 33 exit that you would stop at for a fast food lunch.”

If the city is to sell City Hall, he said, it should seek bids from multiple developers to find the best plan for the community.

Stephanie Haacke of Wisconsin Street asked how the plan would benefit “everyday residents” of the community.

“This is a quaint town,” she said. “An eight-story building is a little ridiculous.”

She also told aldermen that while change is difficult, transparency is essential.

“You need to create awareness and bring people along,” she said.

The fact that many questions remain unanswered worried some people.

Barry Genson, a retired Port architect, told the council, “I have so many questions. I’m not against the project. I want to make sure it’s thoroughly vetted. I would hope the city would slow down.”

The comments didn’t deter Shaffer, who said, “This is clearly a community that cares. I like to work in communities that care.”

Her plan calls for her to acquire City Hall, Old Theatre Square at 116 W. Grand Ave. — which she has under contract — and the Family Promise building at 136 W. Grand Ave. and raze them, replacing them with an L-shaped building that would be five stories with 10,000 square feet of commercial space and about 90 apartments, as well as parking.

The Ozaukee County Administration Center and Historic Courthouse would remain, but in the current parking lot north of those buildings Shaffer plans to create a public square with an L-shaped building against the hillside on the north.

The building would have a mix of about 90 apartments, as well as space for a library and parking, with a public plaza in front.

In all, Shaffer said, her plan calls for 178 free public parking spaces in the buildings — an increase from the existing 165 spaces — as well as parking for residents of the apartments.

The housing, she said, would be aimed at workers in the area.

Shaffer said her proposal meets many of the goals set out in the city’s proposed downtown plan.

“If I don’t develop this, someone else will,” she said, adding she believes she will be more responsive to community concerns.

Shaffer’s plan doesn’t touch the Poole Funeral Home or Edward Jones buildings, but it calls for moving the house next to Poole Funeral Home to the alley behind the funeral home, creating a row of three historic houses along Wisconsin Street.

That could provide a home for businesses currently in the Old Theatre Square building while her new building on Grand Avenue is constructed, Shaffer said.

Shaffer, who said she would likely work on the courthouse parking lot portion of the plan first before beginning the Grand Avenue phase, said her proposal would increase the tax base from the existing $26,292 to $578,032.

“This is not a final plan,” she said, adding she will adapt comments from the meeting before presenting a concept plan to the Plan Commission on Nov. 17. “I want to get this right.”

Shaffer added that during three listening sessions she held, attended by 55 people, 44% favored her plan.

Aldermen, like the public, expressed some concerns about Shaffer’s proposal, everything from the traffic flow on Main Street and the name of the project.

Ald. Mike Gasper said the north building should have more than housing and the library, noting they won’t draw traffic to the public square. Some commercial uses would help draw people, he said.

“Without another attractor, this has the opportunity to be a dead square,” he said.

Neitzke said he opposes any plan to relocate the library, while Ald. Jonathan Pleitner suggested that instead of a library, a community center could serve that purpose since it could draw people during hours a library would be closed.

Gasper also questioned who would pay for the public parking, something Shaffer said would have to be negotiated with the city.

Several aldermen — as well as audience members — spoke in favor of the planned workforce housing but questioned if this use would be maintained.

“Once housing hits the market, it tends to reflect market costs,” Ald. Pat Tearney said.

Shaffer said she will be applying for credits to make the housing possible, adding that the state is stringent in enforcing this type of housing.

Aldermen also questioned the idea of a tax incremental financing district for the project — something Shaffer said is needed to make it reality.

Neitzke thanked Shaffer for her ideas, but added, “I wish you luck but we’re not going to make it easy.”

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