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Mayor Takes Issue with Developer's Changes

Mt. Tosa plan has morphed into something that wasn't envisioned in city's approval process, Didier says.

What was expected to be a short and sweet Common Council meeting Tuesday night got a bit longer when Mayor Jill Didier took issue with the council on an item that came forward with a unanimous recommendation from council committees.

Didier has been a champion of economic development since she took office, but she feels the city has bent backward and finally bent too far to please one developer.

The Mt. Tosa neighborhood development project, on a former city landfill site on North 113th Street, has been on and off the burners for nearly a decade since the city decided to sell the property.

Helmut Toldt, the developer who bought the roughly 18-acre tract, negotiated a fire-sale price on the land, with the city contributing heavily to site remediation and preparation in exchange for his promise to build the kind of upscale development that would bolster the city's tax base.

"It was a competitive process, and he was chosen because of the high-tech, innovative plan he had for an urban community," Didier said.

However, the economic downturn put the project on hold before Toldt finally put together a plan for a mixed housing project to be built in phases.

But Toldt came back to the city recently with a request for a major alteration: He wanted to change an early-phase plan for a high-end apartment complex to a 67-unit assisted living/memory care housing facility.

Didier made her feelings known at the first hearing of the request in front of the Plan Commission a month ago, saying the change was too radical a departure from the plan the city had approved.

When the request came to the Community Development Committee, Didier was on an excused absence vacationing with family. Although aldermen made note at the meeting of Didier's earlier misgivings and her unavailability to say whether she was still unsatisfied, the committee nevertheless went ahead and recommended approval by a 7-0 vote.

As it turned out, Didier was still unsatisfied, and she let the council know it. Ultimately, though, she was overruled; the council approved the change by a wide margin.

In interviews, Didier said she thought the council had failed to hold Toldt accountable to the process.

"When we're working with developers, we make accommodations," she said. "But we have a responsibility to hold developers accountable.

"Plans can and do change, but this was a plan for a high-end, 'wireless community' complex that was supposed to attract people like medical students. An assisted living center is not that."

Didier made clear that she does not oppose assisted living in Wauwatosa; she does oppose the kind of wholesale changes that would make this development something far different than what the city had been led to expect.

Mt. Tosa was drafted and sold as an entirely new neighborhood for Wauwatosa, with Arts and Crafts-style townhouses set along winding streets. The plan did include a senior housing unit, but not a medical facility, which required a zoning change from the original plan.

"It's a major deviation from the plan we approved," Didier said. "It did include a park-like setting, along with an independent living component.

"But this required a change to 'institutional' zoning, and in the end the city is looking at a zoning change as separate from the development plan. I think that's backward."

Jim Price August 04, 2011 at 10:35 PM
John: The Common Council did approve the plan revision for the developer to build assisted living/memory care units, so Tosa won't lose the developer or the development unless for some other reason he pulls back on his own. The mayor wanted to go on record opposing the accommodation of his request.
Christine McLaughlin August 05, 2011 at 01:00 AM
Medical students aren't high end renters, most of them. But that aside, an assisted living facility, however wonderful it might be, reflects the builder's desire to get loans and subsidies and not the needs of the community. Sure, Tosa's aging, but right now, existing senior housing in general is struggling. And with the market tanking again, it will struggle more. Fewer people can afford the costs of assisted living. So this will be housing that may have a high vacancy rate and won't produce tax revenue. We won't even mention that the renderings don't make the place look very attractive. Some developers build senior independent apartments and as soon as they can, convert them to condos: that's the exit strategy. But assisted living is only assisted living. Another question to ask is who will be the care/service provider? That's a huge factor in the quality of assisted living. It's not just buildings.
cornelia beilke August 05, 2011 at 01:55 AM
Service providers create jobs. People with jobs feed families, pay taxes, etc. There is plenty of upscale living sitting empty! In the long run, I think these facilities will be needed. Yes, the developer has changed plans, but haven't we all had to change plans in the last few years? What would be the alternative? Another Walmart, perhaps? I congratulate the Aldermen and women for a sensible decision!
John Pokrandt August 08, 2011 at 02:39 PM
I generally disapprove of the job the Mayor has done (or more appropriately not done) but on this issue she is completely right. There is no need for additional senior housing in Wauwatosa and this is the same bait and switch the developer of the old Western Products land tried to pull. Yes, I am all in favor of increasing reveunes through property tax but taking a long term view, does this really add value to the community? A new development in a mature community like Wauwatosa is a rare opportunity to build something that betters the community long term. The desire to "build something, anything" out of desperation is short sighted.
sashha August 08, 2011 at 03:00 PM
Absolutely right, John. This is a short-sighted and desperate decision, probably because of all the concessions and changes already given to this developer - maybe for the city just to salvage shreds of what is left of the original plan. Let's make good decisions for Tosa now, not vague talk of maybe some need for these service "facilities" in the vague future.

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