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Up On Downer Historical Society Throws a Curve

In February, over the loud objections of most nearby residents, the City Planning Commission (CPC) and the Common Council voted to approve plans for a five story parking garage on the southeast corner of Downer Avenue and Belleview Place, which would displace a surface parking lot, a triangle of green space with a majestic 60-foot tree, and the famous popcorn wagon.

On Mon, April 23, just minutes before the CPC was set to formally approve the no-bid sale of the cityowned land to New Land Enterprises LLC, the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) threw the bureaucrats a lateinning curveball, in the form of a letter demanding “negotiation with you to attempt to avoid, minimize, or otherwise mitigate the adverse effects resulting from the proposed project.”

This caused the CPC to delay a vote on the land sale and other details until discussion could be had between their staff and that of the historical society. CPC staffers and commissioners, along with Alderman D’Amato, insisted at several points during the afternoon hearing that such negotiations – required by state statute – would only affect the “skin of the building.”

The text of the WHS letter, however, suggests that the coming back and forth will be much more incisive. “The scale of the proposed parking structure,” it reads, “is inconsistent with the majority of the surrounding commercial buildings along Downer Avenue.”

32 of the 34 people who signed in at the hearing were against the project, as were all 16 citizens who chose to speak. The only speaker in favor of the project was D’Amato, who conceded that it was “unfortunate that this is the first of the phases. It’s a utilitarian building. It’s not supposed to draw attention to itself.”

He went on to promise that the other two parts of the Downer Avenue masterplan – an 11-story condo on Stowell and Webster and a medical office on Downer and Park – would be “jewels.” Those aspects of the plan would be built on land that that New Land Enterprises already owns, while the five-story parking garage is proposed for currently municipal land at the intersection of two historic districts – the Downer Avenue Commercial District and the North Point Historic District.

Standing Next to Kareem

At that same hearing, the CPC needed no delay in deciding on another 5-story proposal less than two miles to the west, at the intersection of the Brewers Hill, Riverwest, and Harambee neighborhoods. Investors Timothy Olson and Sonny Bando want to construct 53 rental units and street-level retail at the northeast corner of Brown and Holton Streets.

Several residents spoke against the proposal (Olson and Bando did not show up), including Andre Lee Ellis who was upset with its scale. “This’ll be like me standing next to Kareem Abdul-Jabar,” he argued, speaking of the current nearby homes next to the 50- foot plus planned development.

At the urging of Alderman McGee, a code enforcement supervisor with the city’s Department of Neighborhood Services also testified. David Krey revealed that Olson owns 30 other properties in the city, 22 of which have outstanding violations totaling over $41,000 in unpaid fines.

The CPC voted unanimously to deny the zoning change request.

Riverwest Currents online edition – May, 2007