After years of mostly enthusiastic discussion of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Innovation Park on the County Grounds, and after creating a tax financing district to pay for its public infrastructure more than a year ago, the Wauwatosa Common Council got a close look Tuesday at just the first two elements of the project.
The reaction was, at best, tepid.
There certainly was no applause from the council as the UWM Real Estate Foundation, its project designers and top city staff put on presentation on the roadway that will run through the development and on the first of many buildings that will be erected.
There were no hearty congratulations on the long-awaited beginning of a project that has been called the biggest and most promising in the recent history of Milwaukee – about which Real Estate Foundation Director Dave Gilbert said, "We feel we can compete with any region in the country... even Silicon Valley itself."
There were not even any smiles. Rather, a sort of glum realization seemed to settle over aldermen as they saw what impact the project will really have on the County Grounds.
"The road looks really – big," Ald. Tim Hanson said after seeing the plans for the north-to-south route planned to serve the research and development center between Watertown Plank Road and Swan Boulevard.
Other aldermen echoed Hanson's feeling. The broad roadway sweeping through the Grounds suddenly looked immense on just 51 acres open to development.
But UWM Foundation designers said the road, which has tentatively been named Technology Parkway, had actually been downsized from preliminary plans – plans the aldermen had already seen – that called for two lanes in each direction.
The road now would be just one lane in each direction, but with a 5-foot bike lanes on each side and an 8-foot parking lane on one side, plus a 16-foot median along much of its length. Altogether, about 58 to 60 feet wide.
Hanson also wanted to know: "Are we responsible" for all that road infrastructure?
Yes, said City Attorney Alan Kesner. It will be a Wauwatosa street and Wauwatosa is responsible for the maintenance of it and the median.
Zoo Interchange complicates matters
Starting out the presentation, City Administrator Jim Archambo had referred to the "complicating factors" of the imminent Zoo Interchange Project, which will rebuild Swan Boulevard west of the Technology Parkway intersection and all of the Watertown Plank Road intersection starting in 2013.
In fact, said Public Works Director Bill Porter, it would be important to have Technology Parkway paved and ready for use as an outlet before those routes are shut down or severely constricted during construction.
The Zoo Interchange "complication" that hit most council members hardest, though, was an alteration in the Department of Transportation's design plan that forced the Watertown Plank entrance to Technology Parkway to be moved from the west side of the development to the east side.
In the middle sits the historic , so the entrance could only be on either side of it. But east of the parks building is the highest and steepest grade on the entire property.
"There will be a lot of cut and fill to keep within no more than a 5 percent grade," Porter said.
Design architect Lora Strigens of HGA Inc. said "to avoid creating a canyon," her firm had a adopted what is called a "gabion-wall system" of block encased in steel mesh to retain the slope along a long, deep cut to ascend the grade.
The gabion system calls for three overlapping and staggered walls rising successively back and above one another as one would enter the development. The first wall, reaching out almost to Watertown Plank Road, would stand 12 feet high.
To many aldermen, that looked not so much like a canyon as – a wall. A really tall wall.
Ald. Jacqueline Jay was fairly blunt.
"That wall... doesn't look like it's going to be very attractive," she said, and suggested designers check out the natural stone stepped bank treatments installed by MMSD along the Menomonee River in the flood management project.
Ald. Jill Organ also had solid misgivings about a 12-foot vertical wall confronting people at the entrance, and wanted to know if there was an example she could see nearby.
Strigens told her to check out the gabion wall system at Zilber Park in the Pabst Brewery redevelopment. But keep in mind, she advised, designers were dealing with an abrupt 30-foot grade change between Watertown Plank and the top of the ridge where the Parks Headquarters sits.
Organ also noted that a large building in the preliminary plan seemed to have moved north in the latest plan, closer to the two-story, 25,000-square-foot Innovation Accelerator building that is also slated to break ground this year.
"Does that increase the density of the project?" she asked.
Strigens and Gilbert assured her it was not, but they seemed to be talking about different concepts of density than was Organ.
The footprint of the second building – a proposed but so far unfunded 100,000-square-foot UWM engineering center – was not changing, project planners said, it was just shifting a bit north. The total square footage of the project would not increase.
But Organ seemed to be questioning the compaction of the buildings. If the building moved north, it would be closer to the others, with less space between. Plans adopted long ago, before UWM was even a player, had called for minimum distances between structures.
No clear answer was forthcoming.
Access road or thoroughfare?
Finally, Ald. Brian Ewerdt asked the most pragmatic question about the road through Innovation Park.
"What is being done to keep this from becoming a shortcut?" he wanted to know – while confessing that he drives that way every day and would be strongly tempted to use it himself, even though he might have no business to conduct in Innovation Park.
He was told that a roundabout in the middle of the proposed road, its overall winding and swooping nature, and a speed limit of 25 mph ought to discourage most through-traffic drivers. But at the same time, designers said, "The complexion of traffic will change before, during and after" the DOT works through its concurrent project.
Overall, many on the Common Council wanted to have another and decisive say in all those plans before final approval. But Kesner said that, as a council, they'd already had their kick at that cat by approving preliminary plans, and final infrastructure design approvals rested with the Board of Public Works.
Kesner invited any and all interested parties, including aldermen, to participate in those approvals, scheduled to conclude in March.
According to the city timetable, bids on the project can be advertised by June, opened, approved and executed by the end of July, and construction may begin in August.