Calling it a classic "missing teeth" project opportunity, the Village Business Improvement District board has weighed in in favor of a development proposal currently on the table for the iconic Wauwatosa neighborhood.
A city lot left vacant and in the city's hands after the new Fire Station No. 1 replaced its aged predecessor should be redeveloped along with a key privately owned neighboring parcel on the corner of Harmonee and Underwood avenues, the BID said in a letter to city officials.
That letter, along with testimony from neighbors, was presented Thursday to the Community Development Authority, which took no action to approve or deny any proposals.
The Village BID did not go so far as to take a position on the height of the proposed development nor on whether the city should make any investment of public funds in it through tax-incremental financing.
Owners of neighboring properties in the 1400-1600 blocks of Church Street made it clear they do not want to see a four-story development out their back windows — which was the scale of the proposed developer's first plan submission.
In fact, in their own joint statement, those neighbor concurred that they want to see the city take a position that "restricts height to two stories with appropriate setbacks to avoid a structure that 'looms' over the site and neighboring properties."
The preferred developers, Sean Phelan of Phelan Development and Blair Williams of WiRED Properties, proposed a mixed-use complex covering both parcels, with 36 apartment units and about 6,000 square feet of retail space.
That proposal did call for four stories reaching a maximum height of 52 feet above grade on Underwood Avenue, which due to slope would have put it about 47 feet above the back yard lines of the Church Street neighbors.
After a sometimes rancorous neighborhood meeting called by Phelan and Williams in January, the CDA directed city staff to continue negotiations with the developers for a project preferred to be no more than three stories and with limited or no public spending.
Neighbors form a united – and informed – front
In the meantime, the Church Street neighbors — 10 households — organized and developed a "you catch more flies with honey" approach that is thoroughly researched and professionally presented.
Their joint statement begins by saying the neighbors are "pleased to offer our perspective and input regarding development of the fire station remnant property located at 1463 Underwood Avenue in Wauwatosa.
"We are excited by the development’s potential to enhance the attractiveness and vibrancy of the Wauwatosa Village and surrounding neighborhoods."
Rather than complaints, their letter offers "highlights," "recommendations" and "suggestions" – and makes numerous references to matters of density, compatibilty and scale contained in the city's own Comprehensive Plan for 2008 through 2030.
That plan, the neighbors say, supports their positions almost point for point.
The neighbors note that the plan states that, concerning neighborhood in-fill and redevelopment projects, "the City will take measures to ensure preservation of the long-term integrity and character of these neighborhoods...," that "Within this future land use category, further land divisions, increases in density, or the establishment of more intensive land uses are not permitted...," and that the city will "Ensure that redevelopment and infill development in Neighborhood Conservation areas complements the character and scale of existing homes and maintains the neighborhood’s established land uses, densities, and lot configurations while still allowing for neighborhood reinvestment."
As they see it, the Village Development Plan, adopted in 2011 and incorporated into the city's master plan, conflicts with it specifically in reference to the Firehouse Lot – where it suggests that a development of three stories would be acceptable and preferred.
That, the neighbors say, is not in fact in keeping with the character of the neighborhood, as the longstanding old firehouse did not rise to such scale.
Property owner caught in the middle
Complicating the whole question is the fact that the private lot at Harmonee and Underwood is occupied by an active business, Cody and Company, owned by Linda Craite of Menomonee Falls.
Craite has signed a contract to sell to Phelan, who had offered to her and budgeted in its development proposal to buy the property, relocate her to temporary business quarters, and then move her back into a retail space in the finished new building.
Craite is unwilling to accept less because the business is her sole source of support and she has said that if she couldn't re-establish her business without loss, she would be uninterested in selling at all.
But in part, though not wholly, because of costs associated with keeping Craite whole, Phelan said initially that he would have to build to four stories to make the project economically viable – and even then would have a $1.4 million financing gap that he would need the city's help to make up.
The Village Plan and master plan have identified Craite's property for redevelopment – something she says she was never consulted on during the planning process.
Phelan said after the CDA's January action that he would work toward finding a way to make three-story project doable, but not at the expense of abandoning his promise to Craite to keep her in business.
Craite, for her part, has said that she has been unfairly villified as either or both an impediment to progress and some kind of gold-digger, holding the city hostage to her needs.
“I just want to keep my salon, my business,” Craite told Wauwatosa Patch in January. “I want to stay in the Village. I love what I do, I love where I am, I love Tosa. There is no place I’d rather be.”
But, she said, “It would cost me a tremendous amount of money to set up a new Aveda salon, and at this stage in my life, I can’t go into debt trying to recreate what I already have."