Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Milwaukee County Grounds: a proposal with no proponents

It was standing room only in the Common Council meeting room at Wauwatosa City Hall last night. On the agenda: a public hearing about whether or not to rezone two pieces of the Milwaukee County Grounds. Item one, if approved, would rezone 89-acres as a business district in order to permit UWM to move forward with its proposed Innovation Park and research campus. Item two would rezone 55 acres as a conservancy district for parkland.

Mayor Jill Didier explained that each item would be addressed as follows: Proponents speak first; then opponents, followed by general questions.
No one stood up to support the proposed rezoning of item one.

(A member of the Wauwatosa Preservation Society did stand up and speak in order to address the preservation of the Eschweiler Buildings, but she specifically qualified her remarks by saying she was not there to support the entire zoning proposal.)

Then a wide variety of citizens of all ages took turns at the microphone to oppose the rezoning and propose that the entire remaining land in the county grounds be zoned as conservancy. They spoke eloquently and passionately about the value of the land, the loss of green space in Wauwatosa, the importance of the Monarch and other wildlife habitats, and about their personal experiences on the county grounds. The mood in the room was overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining open green space and preserving wildlife.

When all the opponents were finished I rose to ask two rhetorical questions.

Why did no one come to support the proposal? It requires no leap of logic to conclude that the proponents were so confident of approval that they felt the Common Council needed no convincing.

If the land is rezoned, does that mean that the UWM proposal is also approved? That proposal, which was left alarmingly open ended, has generated continued controversy and debate. Nancy Welch, Director of Community Development, explained that the business district zoning would give Wauwatosa the most control over the development of the site. I urged the Common Council to assert its control by adopting specific and effective restrictions over what, where, and how much development occurs. The goal should be to keep within the spirit of the previously adopted Kubala-Washatko plan and the will of the community as expressed at this hearing.

Item two was more predictably one-sided. The entire audience stood in support of conservancy zoning for the parkland. Several spoke. Cheryl Nenn, Milwaukee Riverkeeper, urged that both parcels be zoned as conservancy. This elicited a rousing applause. Another speaker assured the Council that no one opposes UWM, only their choice of a location for their campus. A UWM faculty member reminded the Council that the Innovation Park proposal is highly controversial even within the UWM community.

No one spoke in opposition to this proposal.

“Call me a skeptic,” I said as I got up once more to ask a question. What kinds of development are allowed in a conservancy zone? There was a loud collective gasp as Ms. Welch explained that conservancy zoning allows for athletic facilities and educational or park-related structures. Mayor Didier quickly jumped in to assure the crowd that no stadiums were being proposed.
I requested that the obvious will of the people be enshrined in the greater protections provided by zoning the land as “no-build” in addition to conservancy. Further, the “no-build” restrictions should be added to those portions of the business district identified in the plan as wildlife habitat and green spaces, as well as the 17-acre DOT outlot set aside for freeway expansion.

Much was said about the value of this land and the Monarch habitat. It is not hyperbole to suggest that this is the most valuable land in Milwaukee County (someone added “in Wisconsin.”) It is also not hyperbole to underscore the irreplaceable importance of the Monarch habitat and the value it brings to our community. As I’ve said on the record many times: Let’s keep this treasure for future generations to enjoy.

For more on this hearing, go to WauwatosaNOW.

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