What was Alderman Donegan thinking? The rest of the Wauwatosa Common Council went very quiet; the audience went still as if holding their breaths. The one unmentionable topic was broached, and despite protestations to “drain emotion from the debate” this one brought out emotions aplenty: is preservation of the Eschweiler buildings worth the loss of potential parkland?
The reaction was predictable. In fact, Mr. Donovan even predicted it himself, saying that he’d be “getting a lot of letters” by taking this position. What he got, in very short order, was a firestorm of criticism from the council. Never mind that the preservation of those buildings, which are on the national registry of historic places, has always been a prerequisite for any development on the county grounds, end of argument. No, there had to be an exhaustive review of Wauwatosa’s stewardship of historic properties and reassertion of preservation as one of the city’s premier values.
In fact, this stunning turn in what should have been a conversation about the merits and scope of UWM’s plan followed an award ceremony. We had just witnessed the charm and effervescent delight on the faces of elementary school children for artwork they had done on the theme of historic Wauwatosa. The contest was sponsored by the Historical Society. If questioning the value of the Eschweiler buildings was some sort of strategy, it not only failed utterly but, in my opinion, it derailed an important debate.
Nearly an hour of rhetoric obscured the fact that Alderman Donovan had not suggested that the historic buildings be demolished. His much more measured and reasonable motion was simply to return the question of approval back to the committee on community development for further study. Unfortunately, his tactless comments about preservation made it possible for vocal aldermen who had already made up their minds to dismiss his other very pertinent questions. The foremost of these were: Will Wauwatosa give a green light to 200,000 sq. ft. of residential development before it knows how much the renovation of the Eschweiler buildings will cost? What if, after construction of the apartment units (intended to enable the developer to renovate the dilapidated structures) it is then determined that the cost is still too high?
More important to the many patient audience members, Alderman Donegan’s motion to remand the resolution back to the committee superseded one by Alderman Hanson to amend the resolution. Hanson’s motion would have limited the total square footage of development to the originally agreed 850,000, down from UWM’s request of almost 1.2 million sq. ft. Late in the evening, by the time the council returned to Mr. Hanson’s motion, which had the support of most of the environmental groups represented in the audience, no one was in the mood for further debate. This significant difference in development footprints was dismissed as “negligible.” (Never mind that, if all of the still speculative developments are completed and further need is demonstrated, UWM could come back to Wauwatosa with a new request to return to its 1.2 million.) The “no” vote on that amendment was quickly followed by approval of UWM’s preliminary plan for Innovation Park with two dissenting votes.
To view my recent photo shoot on the county grounds go to my flickr site.
For more information and analysis:
The Daily Reporter
The Political Environment
Milwaukee County First