East Village Conservation Overlay Stirs Up Controversy

Who speaks for a neighborhood? That question is at the heart of a zoning controversy the 10-year-old East Village Association (EVA) is experiencing. The EVA, a non-profit in the lower east side neighborhood of East Village, has traditionally had about 25 paid members out of 600 households. Now membership is growing as interested stakeholders — both residents and non-residents of the neighborhood — take sides. The possible creation of a “conservation overlay district” — a neighborhood-controlled special zoning requirement — has been a major issue for the group in recent years. The district would be the first of its kind in Milwaukee and would cover the area from the north side of Brady Street (already under more restrictive rules of historic designation) to the Milwaukee River (Kane Place), and from Warren Avenue to Humboldt Boulevard (both sides of each). At a June meeting on conservation district rules, about 50 people were in attendance. But nearly 30 were new members and could not vote according to EVA bylaws, which require members to attend one meeting before voting. The conservation district rules were approved 15-3, but had the new members voted, the rules likely would have been voted down. According to EVA president Lisa Christopherson, the conservation overlay proposal grew out of a collaborative session in 2002 involving EVA members and 3rd District Ald. Mike D’Amato. They surveyed property owners and residents and, using the results, worked to come up with guidelines for future development in the neighborhood. “One of the concerns that was very high on the list… was people were concerned about development like the big condos that have been going in down by the river across Humboldt,” Christopherson said. “People wanted to know what we as a neighborhood could do to prevent willy-nilly redevelopment.” But Jill Bondar, whose name and phone number were listed on the flyer enlisting people to come out to resist the conservation district, said if that was the case, the EVA should have made it more clear. “It looks to me like our property rights are being hijacked,” she said. “I didn’t realize a small group could create a non-profit that could make laws to govern an entire neighborhood.” Bondar, who says she has lived in the neighborhood all her life, said she takes exception to the list of restrictions the conservation overlay district would enforce. “Many older people I’ve talked to are concerned that security bars would not be allowed on the outsides of windows,” she said, citing one example of a rule she considered overly restrictive. “If I wanted someone making all these rules about what I can do in my yard, I’d move to the suburbs,” she said. Christopherson was non-plussed by the sudden groundswell of opposition to the plan, most of which seemed to come from newer residents and absentee landlords, she said. “We were flabbergasted and overwhelmed,” she said of the sudden influx of new members in the last two months. The EVA meets regularly and distributes its monthly newsletter door-to-door to all 600 houses in the neighborhood, and she says the conservation district had regularly been on the agenda for almost two years. Referring to Bondar’s flyer, Christopherson noted, “it was highly inaccurate at the time it went out. We had already revised the guidelines based on neighborhood input…you can’t say that suddenly all these people got a civic enlightening…it looks like a hostile takeover attempt.” Christopherson said crafting the proposed regulations for the conservation district was difficult. “Every time we thought we had it done, we’d come up with a reason why it wouldn’t work for a lot of people,” she said. We looked at what was important to have — for example you have to retain a front door that goes to the sidewalk, and if you have a porch to keep it there.” She explained that if the conservation district is approved at the city level, it will be a neighborhood-controlled zoning ordinance that covers the East Village. The guidelines would apply only to new construction or to extensive renovations of existing buildings that require pulling a permit from the city. “People say I don’t want to change my house — well, you don’t have to change your house,” she said. Ald. Mike D’Amato, who chairs the Zoning Neighborhoods and Development committee of the Common Council, said a conservation overlay district would allow neighbors more control over new development. He characterized the hubbub as being “terribly unfair — the EVA is being hijacked by absentee owners who have different interests than the resident-owners.” He continued, “there should be room for honest disagreement on policy such as the conservation district — and productive debate — but there’s no place for undermining the desires of residents.”
by Sonya Jongsma Knauss