Gordon Knoll condos as viewed from the north side of the building. The building is two storeys high where it meets the Whitnall Knoll neighborhood on Roadsmeet Street and four storeys on the side facing Locust Street.
Neighbors in the quiet, almost-suburban enclave of Riverwest known as Whitnall Knoll have taken on developers of the Gordon Knoll condos, and it looks like they may find some common ground. Plans for the four-story condominium development across from Gordon Park at 1220 E. Locust St. came before the City Plan Commission in May because developers made some changes that departed from the Detailed Planned Development (DPD). Whitnall Knoll neighbors, who have an active and tightly-knit block club, say they had been calling 3rd District Ald. Mike D’Amato’s office since last fall to complain as they watched a building take shape that had several key differences with official plans developers presented to them. A DPD is a comprehensive plan for a project that is approved by the city and often has neighborhood input. In essence, it becomes the unique zoning for the specific site. This is supposed to safeguard the original proposal, so that to make changes, developers have to return to the city and/or neighbors for approval. Some neighbors had taken to referring to the development not-so-affectionately as the “Flinstone House” because of the large boulders defining the terraces, not part of the original plan, in front of the building. D’Amato says he passed concerns along to the Department of City Development, but it wasn’t until June that the issues were addressed. At a meeting called by D’Amato to address neighbors’ concerns, two developers, an architect, and more than 20 neighbors attended despite a communications snafu that resulted in a round of last-minute phone calls because letters of notification had not gone out to neighbors. During the meeting, D’Amato told Whitnall Knoll residents they could send the nearly-complete project back to the drawing board — potentially requiring developers to tear off and redo the changed aspects of the project — if they weren’t satisfied with revisions to the plan. “We have the ability to tell them to rip it out if we want to,” he said, “but we need a unified voice from the neighborhood.” Neighbors’ frustrations were evident. “You are putting a very large building right next to a historic home,” said Carter Hunnicutt, referring to the Whitnall House owned and occupied by Kurt Holzhauer. “We would have appreciated more sensitivity to the site — we’ve done our best to be patient, but better communication between you and us would’ve answered our questions a lot earlier.” The Whitnall House, a historically protected dwelling, has suffered damage because of construction workers’ carelessness, Holzhauer said. He also told developers the building next to his house should look more “suburban and less institutional,” with better planned greenspace and less concrete. At the meeting, developers Brendan Sullivan and Jim Crosbie (Meridian Development) of Mequon pleaded ignorance of neighbors’ concerns. “We’re not trying to hide anything,” Sullivan insisted. “We didn’t know we had an obligation to submit plans to neighbors.” When pressed to describe the building’s design scheme, which some neighbors complained was a hodge-podge of architectural elements, Sullivan described it as “new urbanist” because it sits close to the street. But one element that neighbors strongly support, a fence on either side of the building to block access into the quiet neighborhood, is about as anti-new urbanist as you can get. “We need a fence on both sides, else they’ll just hop this one and get through,” one neighbor explained, referring to recent increases in crime and traffic neighbors seem to blame on residents of the public housing high rise next door. Developers were quick to agree that a fence would go up. The other issues of concern regarding changes to the plan were the addition of a tall retaining wall on the north side of the development bordering Roadsmeet Street that neighbors want to see lowered, the lengthy sidewalk that zigzags across the front of the property to provide accessibility for people in wheelchairs, and the muddy gully that runs along the west side of the property. Developers say many of the aesthetic problems will be alleviated when landscaping is complete. They also explained that the grade of the property was steeper than the city’s plans showed — two feet higher than the height original plans were based on. That difference meant the ramp had to zigzag across the front to meet code requirements for the slope. Developers promised to meet with the neighborhood block club in late June (no meetng had been scheduled at press time June 28) to present revised plans that address concerns raised at the meeting. After neighbors have a chance to review plans, the development will go back before the City Plan Commission for approval. Seventeen of the 35 condo units have been sold, and remaining units are listed between $189,000 and $299,000. Prospective buyers can contact Shorewest at 414/962-4413.
by Sonya Jongsma Knauss / photo by Tess Reiss