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North view of river valley from the west side of the North Avenue bridge, across from the Hometown site. Wisconsin Paperboard is the industrial complex in the background.

Aldermanic candidates for Milwaukee’s 3rd District speak out

The Question: What is your strategy to coordinate a plan for the Hometown development site at the east end of the North Avenue bridge?  There are three powerful stakeholders in this issue: Mandel, the developer; the East North Avenue BID; and the community groups gathered under the Milwaukee River Work Group who have a zoning proposal before the Council that impacts future development. Please give specific, concrete answers on how you, as the next leader of the 3rd District, would deal with what may appear to be disparate goals among the three stakeholders. What would be your vision that would address their goals and find a common ground? All the candidates were asked to answer this question in 500 words or less. Their answers are listed in alphabetical order. The comments of the candidates are unedited.

The red asterisk marks the site of the Hometown site on the north side of North Avenue and the river. The map above shows the boundaries of the 3rd. District as well as 11 neighborhood groups.

John Connelly ConnellyForAlderman.com John Connolly As your 3rd District Alderman, I will implement the following core principles to create a transparent, standardized and democratic process for ALL development projects in the district:

  1. Engage residents early and often in the process
  2. Promote Northeast Side Area Plan principles
  3. Preserve natural resources
  4. Require high quality development standards

I will ensure that early post-card surveys and neighborhood meetings are standard practice for collaborating with residents on potential development projects. I will not allow a proposal to move forward without careful review and assurance that the adjacent natural environment is protected in perpetuity. Public information and meetings will be noticed with sufficient time for public attendance and review. Working together, I believe balanced development plans must preserve natural resources that we all care deeply about and enhance the vibrancy of our neighborhoods that attract us to this wonderful urban setting. I will work collaboratively with residents to establish appropriate use for the Hometown property that preserves the natural environment and enhances the surrounding area. The site is currently zoned IL2 (Industrial District) and as such could be developed for industrial or commercial purposes. Under current zoning, the entire site is at risk to be developed, including the sloping tree-covered bank and portions of the river basin floor. Current zoning also allows buildings to be anywhere from 45-feet to over 85-feet. Large-scale development that encroaches on the natural environment and detracts from the surrounding neighborhood is inappropriate for this site and I will not support it. I will lead the effort to ensure any development creates a context-sensitive transition from the natural river corridor on the western gateway to the business district on the eastern gateway. I support the need to carefully manage this environmentally sensitive site. As your 3rd District Alderman, I will work to ensure that development plans remediate any environmental issues associated with the existing gas station. I will demand that any development proposal respect the Primary Environmental Corridor, a demarked boundary established by the DNR, while still maintaining the ability to develop the North Avenue frontage for appropriate mixeduse development. Trees and other natural resources must be retained on the bluff and in the river basin. I also support a carefully designed natural surface trail to allow public access. This property holds great potential to support and enhance the surrounding neighborhood. Any buildings must include high quality, pedestrian-sensitive architecture. I will not support inappropriate towers or large street/river facing parking lots. I do support modest development that fits well into the local environment. Urban density and activated commercial main streets contribute to vibrant and safe neighborhoods. Thanks for considering my core principles for all development projects, as well as my view of appropriate development for the Hometown site. I want to reassure you that, as your 3rd District Alderman, no development project will move forward in the 3rd District without early and often collaboration with residents. Together we will create safe neighborhoods, a thriving community and a fresh start.  

Sura Faraj www.SuraforChange.com Sura FarajPublic Trust, Zoning and Development Cities need development to thrive—not just housing, but economic, organizational, environmental and cultural development in balance. Too much development in one area causes taxes to skyrocket. Too little foreordains blight. Cities and local governments must foster a deeper sense of “public trust” in order to be effective. Zoning, as a public asset, is part of that trust. If we want sustainable development, then we can’t allow ourselves to be held hostage to developers or to equate development merely with fast-buck condo/dorm/hotel building. In this vein, I support development that goes hand in hand with public trust. Mandel’s Hometown site is a gateway between River neighborhoods. Development there should create an aesthetic and meaningful transition between neighborhoods and engage the river with its multiple uses. Ideally, development anywhere along the river will promote pedestrian and water uses (strolling, canoeing, fishing, running, etc.) of the river. Not only developers, landlords, businesses and environmental groups, but neighboring stakeholders (including residents of Cambridge Woods, Riverside Park, the East Village and Riverwest), and those who love the river and believe it is worth preserving, need to be engaged. For over 10 years, along with many of these stakeholders, I have been working to protect the sensitive river bluffs. I am proud to be a working member of the Milwaukee River Work Group (MRWG), supporting proactive preservation of one of our district’s finest assets. Milwaukee River Overlay District MRWG has proposed a zoning overlay district” in the greenway corridor to retain natural experiences for those who use the area recreationally and to protect and preserve the ecosystem and its endangered species. This zoning prohibits building in the primary environmental corridor, and creates guidelines to control erosion and runoff, preserving native vegetation and wildlife habitat. It places conditions on new development in the form of setbacks from the bluff and height restrictions, protecting the “viewshed.” The purpose is to inspire long-needed stewardship and encourage activities that preserve our river. Since most of the property in the overlay district is either parkland or exempt (single families and duplexes), the affected parcels are few, right now only the “Blue Hole” and Hometown. Logically, it makes no sense to create a mechanism for preserving the river only to exempt the sites it was meant to affect. Imagine a Hometown Legacy I am in favor of—and it is time for—the creation of environmentally, socially and economically sustainable development throughout Milwaukee. I welcome working with developers who have a forward vision, who can make money and benefit our city, neighborhoods, river and lake. I welcome developers who build green, work with neighbors, and are willing to sign Community Benefits Agreements. As such, I support MRWG’s proposal. If Mandel can take this opportunity and build something compatible with its location along the river— particularly one that is architecturally integrated, green-built (perhaps LEED certified?), and compliant with height (under 45 feet) and setback (50 feet) restrictions, then they will have my support as well.  

Patrick Flaherty www.PatrickNewLeadership.com Patrick Flaherty Preservation and protection of the Milwaukee River corridor is one of my highest priorities, in part because I feel a strong personal connection to this space. Every day, I walk my dogs down by the river. Maintaining the river corridor brings many benefits to local residents. A functioning ecosystem helps clean the air and water, and manage floodwater. The river is the most accessible venue for most of us to learn about and enjoy the natural world, a fact that is especially relevant for the hundreds of low-income children who benefit from nature programming offered by the Urban Ecology Center. Proximity to a beautiful and accessible natural area can also boost property values and protect the investment we have made in our homes. Protection of this corridor is something we choose to do not only for ourselves, but for the generations that will come after us. Decisions about how to balance development with our environmental priorities must be driven by ruthless pursuit of the common good. It is a great time to have this conversation because this particular development is still in preliminary stages. There is no concrete proposal on the table. Instead of being in the common and unenviable position of reacting to what has been laid out, we have the opportunity to create a framework for communication among the key parties at the table – and the general public – to ensure that the ultimate proposal incorporates principles that have already been laid out. My approach to this project is driven by a few key principles:

  • Enforce the two-year development guidelines already enacted by the Milwaukee Common Council through the advocacy of the Milwaukee River Work Group. We need to protect the viewshed and natural state of the river by enforcing the expanded review process. Understandably, some people fear that these guidelines could be circumvented through behind-the-scenes pressure at City Hall. I will ensure that no development gets the greenlight unless it adheres to these guidelines.
  • Use existing leverage points to encourage key parties to work toward consensus. The site is currently zoned for industrial development, but the Mandel Group specializes in mixed use projects and has already floated the idea of another UWM dorm on the site. Zoning change requires RACM and/or Common Council Approval. I will make it clear to all parties that getting my support for a change in the zoning will require that they bring forward a proposal they can all support.
  • Create a vehicle for appropriate communication among all parties. We should not assume that development has to be a contentious event that pits community residents against monied interests, environmentalists against big-builders. Often, conflicting ideas about development proposals arise late in the process, when developers have invested substantial funds in working up a proposal and securing financing. Community residents too often feel that their input is not solicited. As a result, they fear they have no choice but to dig in their heels and say no. In fact, developers hate surprises and would love to have community support from the outset, and many community residents could get excited about the idea of new developments if they felt their concerns were respected. Ensuring that all interested parties have the opportunity and the invitation to participate in the planning process is among my highest priorities. I have already reached out Friends of Milwaukee’s River, the Mandel Group; and the East Side BID; and will coordinate regular meetings among these three as the project progresses.
  • Maximize public access to/use of the river. The “greenway” created by the Milwaukee river is a natural asset we all enjoy. It should not be privatized or made into a money-making enterprise that primarily benefits any one entity.

Of course these discussions can be contentious and difficult, but we all have an interest in seeing this site cleaned up and incorporated into a framework that allows everyone to enjoy the river.  

Daniel Fouliard www.fouliard.org Daniel FouliardHistory Can Help Us Provide and Preserve Value On The Eastside The re-development of the hometown gas station on North Ave. will provide value to the Eastside, and a sense of wilderness along the Milwaukee River will preserve value on the Eastside. As Alderman, I must provide and preserve value on the Eastside. There is an over-riding wisdom in preserving nature. Before Egypt and Greece turned their lands into rock and sand, these places were full of trees and rich soil. But the trees were cut, the soil eroded, and today only ruins remain. History helps us understand: when we preserve nature, we preserve ourselves, and history justifies The Milwaukee River Work Group lobbying to preserve nature along the river. At first glance, it appears the Work Group is at odds with the Mandel Group. Mandel Group profits from real estate development, while the Work Group is lobbying to minimize development along the river. But, I do not find the interests of preservation and profit to be competing ideologies at the Hometown site. The view of the river from the site is– brown water, a concrete bridge, a boxy six-story dorm– selling the “river view” may not be the optimal design solution– for the developer. However, the site poses severe design constraints: Wisconsin Paperboard Corp. piles cardboard 25’ high next to the site daily; three major utility mains run underneath the street next to the site, and the intersection at North Ave. and Cambridge is off-set— given this information, Mandel is proposing a six story building with a small courtyard utilizing the land closest to North Ave. Architecturally, the building is respectable. If it were a lesser developer, I would not think a better design possible– but this is Mandel Group– an award winning developer both locally and nationally, and Mandel Group is capable of brilliance on this– 675’ long by 350’ wide Hometown site. At this prime location, a large semicircle pedestrian public square would create its own views, and its own appeal. Numerous precedents indicate well designed public squares draw crowds and businesses ready to rent century after century. Certainly there are issues with this site, but they can all be resolved with brilliant design. Throughout history, the most saleable retail, restaurant and housing space has been located in public squares. Venice, for example, has Piazza San Marco. Since the 12th century, Piazza San Marco has been successful and it measures— 574’ long by 262’ wide. I would support an ordinance enforcing a set back to the bluff-line from the river at North Ave. — and, I would support a full overlay district– including a “viewshed”– being put in place around the river bend 500 yards north of North Ave all the way to Shorewood. Once the overlay district is in place, lobbying the Federal Government to purchase the land north of the Hometown site and making it a Public Forest Preserve maybe the best way to guard against further development along the river.  

Nik Kovac Kovac08.com Nik Kovac There’s a lot of public interest in the Hometown site, and there should be. It’s at the intersection of an important commercial/transportation corridor and a vital, unique environmental corridor. It is an encouraging sign for Milwaukee’s civic future that so many local stakeholders have already organized around such a pivotal piece of real estate, even before a specific development proposal has been advanced. The Milwaukee River Work Group (MRWG) is a model for pro-active, grass-roots community planning. Such efforts are always more successful and influential when they happen early – so that they can define the debate instead of reacting to it. Its goals are clear: preserve and improve a publicly accessible greenway along the river, from North Avenue to the city limits, for the sake of recreation and wildlife. The East Side North Avenue Business Improvement District (BID) has also become increasingly organized, and their goals for the blocks near the river are clear: mixed used development encouraging increased daytime pedestrian activity and related amenities. These goals really should be compatible, even synergistic. A contemplative walk along the river might lead to a pleasant stroll down North Avenue, and vice versa. The Mandel Group owns the site, and of course would like to build something there that will turn a profit. They have a long track record of building in Milwaukee, and are committed to this city. That means they should share – at least in broad strokes – the visions and interests of the MRWG and the BID. As alderman, I will actively encourage all three of these groups to discover overlapping goals and common ground. If and when this proves impossible, I will be an honest, transparent, and inclusive arbiter. City government will have leverage in that location, because the land is currently zoned industrial, and Mandel’s plans for that site most likely will not be. The zoning of that land will also be changing this year, regardless of what Mandel proposes, thanks to the efforts of the MRWG. An interim overlay district is currently being studied, which will create setback and height restrictions for anything built along the river. I will make every effort to ensure that those restrictions are reasonable, and that they become law. The scale of any plans for that site must respect the public’s strong interest in a successful river greenway. It’s worth noting that the site directly abuts Wisconsin Paperboard Corporation, a 24-7 industrial recycling operation that employs over 150 people earning living wages. Whatever is built there should not compromise the efficient operation of that economic engine for this city. Because Mandel has a long-term interest in the prosperity of this city and the many properties they own inside it, I think they can be convinced to include within the project an inviting public access to the trails on our river’s eastern bank. That will make the greenway, the city, and their project more successful, vibrant, and sustainable.  

Sam McGovern-Rowen VoteSam08.org Sam McGovern-Rowen In determining the best future use for the Hometown site, I have two guiding principles. First, the Milwaukee River is a tremendous asset for the 3rd District and Milwaukee and must be preserved. It is our duty to make sure that it is available for people enjoy far into the future. Second, investment and growth in our city are vital. Progress makes Milwaukee stronger while combating suburban sprawl, promoting mass transit and using tax dollars efficiently. I am an advocate of the Milwaukee River overlay district, and I am the only candidate to have been engaged in the project at City Hall from the beginning. By setting standards for development of land adjacent to the river we can preserve this important natural asset and promote the growth and health of the 3rd district. As Ken Leinbach, Executive Director of the Urban Ecology Center said: this effort is not anti-development, it is pro-river preservation. I believe strongly that more eyes on the river make it a safer place to play and remind us to be involved in preserving it. I believe that those who propose to use the overlay effort as a tool to stop development in the 3rd District are misguided and do not represent a majority in this aldermanic district. Unlike much of the land along the river, the Hometown site is private property. It is unrealistic to think that it will remain undeveloped. That being said, any development of the site should be of a scale that is consistent with the area and include a mix of uses that reflect the neighborhood. The North Avenue frontage will be a gateway to the North Avenue commercial district from the West, and should house an anchor building with first floor retail and housing or office above. I will push the developer to use high quality, green materials with bold, premiere architecture. A new access point to the river is a must, and the retail use should take advantage of the unique location. The remainder of the site should include buildings that contain a healthy buffer from the river and again use green designs that save energy and prevent run-off. As well, these buildings should be no higher than the tree line in order to protect the view-shed from the river. The uses should be less intense than those on North Ave. As alderman I would also use this site as the model for a new “green” zoning overlay that promote green building practices, materials, site plans and infrastructure. San Francisco has adopted such a code and I will use this and examples from around the country to craft a code specific to Milwaukee. The Hometown sites and the 3rd District are perfect places to establish this new code. Our district acts as a leader in promoting positive, progressive change for Milwaukee. I will continue that tradition and use the Hometown site as a location where we again lead our city forward.  

Matt Nelson NelsonforAlder.org Matt Nelson City policy should promote economic development that benefits the public in ways that create family-supporting jobs, provide equal opportunity, and raise the standard of living. Development must preserve the environment, strengthen neighborhoods, and be guided by local resident associations. I support development projects that follow neighborhood plans, pursue transit, bicycle, and pedestrian friendly designs, and improve the quality of life for all district residents. These are the standards I would use to guide my strategy with the hometown development site. As your Alder, my approach in coordination will be straightforward, and done so in public. I support open, accountable government that fosters civic engagement free from the influence and impact of private money. As Third District Alder, I would support projects where there are clear public benefits, economic and otherwise, and include a Public Benefit Agreement drafted by the stakeholders. Developers who fail to produce public benefit results should be required to repay any government subsidy with interest. I support the development of additional affordable and accessible housing units throughout the district and incentives for developers who maintain a substantial proportion of developments as permanently affordable housing. You can count on me to fight for the needs of our district. In return, I need to count on your support. Thank you.  

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