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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, .

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."

Nancy Hall March 15, 2012 at 08:17 PM
I was among those speaking against the project at the meetings. My concerns are mostly over security and parking lot activity. A representative of another neighborhood business, speaking against the bill, recited a rather alarming list of crimes committed in O'Reilly parking lots across America. They were reminiscent of problems we've had with Radio Shack. That being said, the designs they presented suggest that this will be an attractive addition to the neighborhood. The facade will look very different from the one in the thumbnail above. They proposing softening the building with neutral colors, muting O'Reilly's signature colors, shading the windows with awnings, and installing decorative lighting. There's also a lovely landscaping plan which, I hope, will be tended more carefully than the scraggly junipers that are in the lot now. I never really expected redevelopment for that lot, but neither did I expect the East 'Tosa North Avenue Plan to be abandoned quite so quickly. I guess that's my biggest disappointment. I was one of the hundreds of 'Tosans who made contributions to the plan over the years. I attended a couple of workgroups, filled out surveys, and studied the plan when it was published. I agree with Ald. Roznowski's assessment of the situation. I think city officials need to start looking, seriously, at the plan and at how they can support implementation for the remainder of the trade district.
jbw March 15, 2012 at 11:01 PM
I'm thinking they'd need to replace a lot of the retired folks and scrappy young working class people with wealthy professionals to support all the high-end specialty development the planners seem to desire. But then why would people with a lot of money want to be right next to the slums on the West side of Milwaukee? Maybe a dose of reality is required here. High crime rates in the parking lot based on the name brand of the company in an adjoining building? Really? What would be the causal link there? Like "I was going to rob someone in the parking lot, but I see it's Autozone, not O'Reily's, so I guess I'm out of luck"? Or is it just that "we all know" that "those people" are the kind who drive used cars and frequent an auto parts store? Former Alderman McGee was arrested in that parking lot while Blockbuster was still there, so I guess it does have a history with undesirables.
mau March 16, 2012 at 02:29 AM
Is it the business or the location of the business, that attracts the crime?
John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt March 16, 2012 at 03:59 AM
" A representative of another neighborhood business, speaking against the bill, recited a rather alarming list of crimes committed in O'Reilly parking lots across America." Please post the FBI crime statistics supporting the fact that an O'Reilly is a magnet for crime. If you cannot produce the documentation then do not spread salacious rumors or post passive aggressive nonsense.
John Bray March 16, 2012 at 12:29 PM
It is the free enterprise thing--this auto parts business has outstanding customer service, impressive product selection, very competitive prices, excellent store hours, very good parking and quick & comprehensive custom ordering. What's more, every O'Reilly's store nationwide provides consistentcy---and who benefits? The customer does!!!
John T. Pokrandt March 16, 2012 at 03:01 PM
Not what we hoped for but with no one really driving the North Avenue plan it's not surprising. A plan without active implementation by our leaders is nothing more than a piece of paper. I'm glad that some revisions have been made to make the property more attractive and I certainly believe at the end of the day an O'Reilly's store is better than a long term vacancy.
pupdog1 March 17, 2012 at 06:21 AM
The article states: "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." Huh? Was shehiding in her office hoping that Cohen would drop in? What are we paying her for?

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