Everyone Has His or Her Say, But O'Reilly Store Is Here to Stay
Plan for auto parts store in former Blockbuster building advances strongly on two key votes and is virtually certain to pass the full Common Council next week, as citizens, city can find no basis for denying or delaying it.
"Sausage-making at it's finest."
So said Ald. Craig Wilson shortly after midnight Wednesday, when a meeting that started at 8 p.m. Tuesday finally adjourned.
The process was more akin to the emulsification of an issue – although the end product still strongly resembled its beginnings.
After marathon hearings on consecutive nights, a conditional use permit for an O'Reilly Auto Parts store at 6102 W. North Ave. marched forward toward final approval next week before the Common Council.
On Monday, the request received a unanimous thumbs-up from the Wauwatosa Plan Commission. Tuesday night, it earned a second strong recommendation from the Community Development Committee, polling 4-2 for approval.
But those solid votes in favor came only after nearly eight hours of hashing over the O'Reilly plan, spread over the two nights.
Not what planners had envisioned
Residents of East Tosa, aldermen from all over Tosa, administrative staff, the property owner and O'Reilly representatives contended at length over whether the auto parts store fit in with city planning.
After all was said and done, the net change in the plan was two fewer parking spaces – a concession O'Reilly made to address neighbors' longing for a little more green on the block-long site.
That was a far cry from the "pocket park" envisioned on the property in the North Avenue Plan, a lengthy document accepted last year into the city's master plan. And the auto parts store itself was not what many East Tosa folks wanted to see in the former Blockbuster Video building.
The plan identified the site as a prime location for mixed-use redevelopment.
No legal basis to refuse
But owner Dan Cohen and his attorney, Brian Randall, pointed out that redevelopment was not a requirement, and that if the 6,500-square-foot building were simply being reused and "re-tenanted," as they proposed, there was nothing in the conditional use permitting process to prevent it.
In fact, Randall told committee members Tuesday, the proposed use fit all city conditions thoroughly, and if it were not for one stipulation, there would be no discussion at all.
"The plan isn't binding," Randall said. "This is a permitted use in the zoning, which is for a trade district.
"You do have a requirement that the council review a reuse plan if it's over 5,000 square feet. That's what we trigger. If we were at 4,999 square feet, we wouldn't even be having this discussion.
"Legally, there is no basis for delaying this. (Cohen) has a signed lease, a signed contract."
Looking for loopholes, finding none
Nevertheless, citizens and some aldermen spent hours looking for any seams in the fabric of the plan – even down to the treatment of tinted window glass and the color of the storefront sign.
That led Ald. Don Birschel to fume, quite audibly, "It isn't in our purview!"
As an excercise in democracy, it was an overall patient and comprehensive process, with all given a chance and as much time as wanted to be heard – even though it was clear almost from the start that the city would find no basis to deny Cohen and O'Reilly's request.
When it came down to it, most of those opposed to O'Reilly as a neighbor acknowledged that it is a good company and agreed with those others who said O'Reilly or anything was better than a building standing vacant.
A plan is only as good as its execution
Ald. Jeff Roznowski made what might have been the most pertinent observation, even in hindsight.
Referring to the North Avenue Plan, which has been in place since the middle of last year and had been thoroughly discussed and vetted long before that, Roznowski said, "Where was the process? Where was the implementation?"
As many others have, Roznowski said that it had long been known that Blockbuster would not be around long, and that the city should have been more proactive in working with Cohen to forge the best fit for East Tosa.
Cohen said that he had tried beginning as long ago as 2007 to find an attractive replacement for Blockbuster, but his best hope came a couple of years ago when he persuaded Blockbuster to "right-size" its operation to below 5,000 square feet, allowing him to subdivide the building and add a coffee shop.
But Blockbuster backed out of the deal, he said, and when that company finally folded up its tent, O'Reilly was the only business interested in occupying the site.
Economic Development Director Paulette Enders acknowledged that while she was aware of Cohen's earlier interest in subdividing – well before the North Avenue Plan was adopted – she could recall no discussions with Cohen about the property over the critical past year.
Roznowski scolded both sides for what amounted to a lack of communication when it would have counted.
"I think you (Cohen) deserve some blame for that," he said, "but I believe we deserve more."