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."