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Meinecke Sewer Project Sinks In for 90th St. Homeowners

Trees have come down on blocks south of North Avenue, and neighbors are trying to learn to live with the effects of that – and of what more they know is coming.

Compared to other residents of North 90th Street south of Meinecke Avenue, Susan Barnhart might at first seem to be faring better than most.

Actually, she could make a good case for having it worst.

True, her property in the long 2000-2100 block is served by an alley, so unlike some neighbors farther north, she'll have driving access to her home throughout construction of the .

And true, she lives on the east side of a block on which it was the trees on the west side that were choosen to be cut down, leaving her – for now – with the shade of a towering old elm.

Trouble is, just before learning about the coming upheaval of the sewer project, Barnhart and her husband decided to sell their home.

"We have had no lookers," Barnhart said, "and this isn't helping. I cried when the trees came down."

Barnhart said that she and her husband, now both retired, decided over the winter that it would be their last in Wisconsin. They would sell and move to Florida.

"We listed it about five or six months ago with Shorewest," Barnhart said, "and we did have a couple of showings early on."

Then they found out, belatedly, about the coming construction, and so did the rest of the Wauwatosa home-buying world.

The Barnharts had listed their house at $279,000, a seemingly reasonable price for a nice home in one of Wauwatosa's more desirable neighborhoods, on a quiet, shady street just off Menomonee River Parkway.

"Oh, we have had one offer," Barnhart said. "It was for $205,000."

That low-ball seemed designed to take advantage of desperation. But the Barnharts are, instead, resigned.

"We know we'll be spending another winter here," Susan Barnhart said.

Before too long, she knows, the excavation will begin, her street will be closed for months, impassable for weeks at a time, and no one would be able to visit her home even if they wanted to.

"There are a lot of beautiful homes," Barnhart said. "Why would you choose one that had this destruction in front of it?"

Adding injury to insult

If all that sounds bad, it could get worse. The Barnharts happen to live at an address that stands out in the collective neighborhood angst over tree losses.

As mentioned, a veteran elm stands in front of their home. An almost identical old elm still stands directly across from it – the only mature tree left on that side.

This was a situation so unique that City Engineer Bill Wehrley made a point of mentioning it .

"There is one place," he said then, "where there are two big elms across the street from each other. We wanted to figure out a way to save them both, if we could.

"But guess what? When we took a close look at them, it looks like one of them might already have Dutch elm disease. If so, it would go anyway."

Yep. That's the Barnharts' street tree. One of the selling points they had hoped to have in their favor when all this is over and done with – one of the few remaining large and shapely trees on the block – is perhaps not long for this world.

An unhappy homecoming, and resignation

Across the street, Barnhart's neighbor Jane Kean was out of town when the crews started up the block.

"We came back and it looked pretty barren, almost like a new land here with all the trees gone," Kean said. "It was stark coming back to this."

Kean is resigned to the Meinecke project now, and she believes most of her neighbors are, too. It's here, it's happening, and there's nothing to stop it now. But that doesn't mean they've gotten over it, or will anytime soon.

"There was some controversy because of the lack of warning that we got from the city," she said. "Even when we went to a listening session, I think it was already determined what was going to be done – it was just for us to vent.

"It's frustratrating having to be in the midst of this when the actual concern is in another area than the neighborhood here. There's people who are still feeling pretty strongly about it, but it's not voiced as much, I guess, because it's actually going on now.

"But we'll survive."

There's one other immediate effect the loss of all the trees on her side has for Kean and her west-side neighbors. There is now nothing to impede their view of the progress of the sewer work.

They have a ringside seat to watch monster earthmoving equipment already at work at the foot of their block, on Menomonee River Parkway. Next week, the materials for a huge sewer collector box will arrive, to be installed in the riverbank.

Once it's in, the curb-to-curb excavation of their street can begin.

Street tree survivor's guilt

Susan Campbell, on the east side of the block along with the Barnharts, said she felt little consolation in her side not having lost its trees.

"I did win the toss," Campbell said. "But I almost feel guilty that I won the toss and my neighbors lost their trees.

"It does make the front of my house a lot sunnier in the afternoon, but as I said, I feel a little guilt that I got to keep my tree and they didn't, and they're going to replace them with these tiny specimens."

Campbell, like Kean and the Barnharts, feels that the city pushed the project forward without informing or consulting 90th Street residents of what was coming their way.

Campbell went so far as to say that in her opinion, the city "withheld the information until someone on our block asked a surveyor what was going on."

The city's response has been to admit there was a serious and regrettable lack of communication to 90th Street neighbors, but that it was by no means intentional. Several aldermen have publicly apologized.

"As many on our block agree," Campbell said, "the project is probably necessary. But we think they pushed it through on their own agenda without getting citizen input.

"Many of us think that there were different ways of doing the project, especially when it comes to the loss of the trees."

A number of neighbors questioned why smaller equipment could not be used – in most cases, trees have been or will be removed not because they are directly in the path of excavation but because of the need for room to swing 30-foot-plus crane arms toting mammoth 10-foot-diameter concrete pipe sections.

But by the time the residents could be heard, the bids on the project had already been let and opened – and it was already known to be headed toward going millions of dollars over budget.

Calling for new equipment specifications at that point would have required the time and expense of rewriting bid specifications and rebidding the project, and using smaller equipment for the same job would have driven project costs even higher.

Campbell and her neighbors know all this now. They can't really know whether it would have mattered even if they had known sooner.

One thing not to worry about – the cork tree

One more thing has Campbell concerned, though, something she feels the city can and should still rectify.

There's an e-mail going around the neighborhood saying that the default replacement tree for their block is the Amur cork tree. In several eastern states and in Illinois, it's been identified as an invasive species, and Campbell said most people don't want it.

Fortunately, it is one thing they need not fear. According to Parks and Forestry Division staff, the city hasn't been able to buy Amur corks for three years and won't be getting any anytime soon.

Invasive or not, they are so popular that nurseries have been selling them all off at smaller sizes than the city purchases.

Addresses where Amur cork was scheduled – not just on 90th Street but throughout the cityscape – are being planted with Turkish filbert or black alder trees instead.

alt ideas needed July 10, 2012 at 08:57 PM
what a fecal situation for everyone involved. I feel for all of the residents of Wauwatosa that got washed down the drain with this project. The city should at least compensate the citizens of 90th St with some larger replacement trees.
Random Blog Commenter July 11, 2012 at 03:12 PM
Elm trees die of Dutch Elm Disease. End of story. If you have one in front of your house it is only a matter of time. "The Barnharts had listed their house at $279,000, a seemingly reasonable price for a nice home in one of Wauwatosa's more desirable neighborhoods, on a quiet, shady street just off Menomonee River Parkway." While I am sure the project is having an effect on the immediate sale of this particular house, most people selling or refinancing their houses today are shocked at what their house is actually worth compared to what it is assessed at by the city. It truly is a buyer's market for those with the ability to get financing.

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