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Local officials, residents have joined to resolve construction disputes
June 14th, 2002
The village of Whitefish Bay is roiling over the plans proposed by the Milwaukee Jewish Federation and the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center for new construction and renovations on the Karl Jewish Community Campus.
The intensity of the opposition has surprised some. This writer has heard Jewish community members wondering whether the opponents expressed concerns about traffic, noise, property values, taxes and intensity of land use which they repeat despite federation and JCC officials efforts to address those matters are the real reasons for their vehemence.
But before jumping to conclusions about the opponents being motivated by anti-Semitism, for which there is so far little direct evidence, one first has to ask: Are Whitefish Bay residents especially resistant to change? Other recent news suggests this possibility.
Village manager James H. Thomas told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (May 22) that he was going to resign because he found it too difficult and frustrating to get the village to accept changes generally not only to the Karl Campus, but also to the former National Guard Armory and the Silver Spring Dr. business district.
Yet Whitefish Bay may not be so unusual. The rise of intense opposition to construction plans in residential neighborhoods is common in the greater Milwaukee area; and at least one person who deals with these issues says it has become more so.
Brad Steinke is director of community development for the city of Mequon. He said he has been in the city planning field for some 20 years and has worked in other parts of the Milwaukee area.
He said that over the last decade, he has sensed that property owners want to aggressively protect their property interest. I dont know what to attribute that to.
In the old days, maybe there was a greater sense of community and more willingness to accept the idea of construction projects being of benefit to everyone. Now every development proposal is a fight, Steinke said.
Indian Community School
In any event, according to Fred Klimetz, mayor of Franklin, Most people dont like change and feel more comfortable with things staying the same. You have to expect that the first time new non-residential construction is proposed in a residential neighborhood, there will be a knee-jerk reaction, No, put it somewhere else.
But neither is it unusual for such conflicts to conclude peacefully to the satisfaction of most people involved. Franklin and Mequon provide examples.
In the late 1990s, leaders of the Indian Community School, currently located on the former Concordia University campus on W. State St. in Milwaukee, decided they wanted a new school building and campus.
According to school CEO Dr. Linda Sue Warner, school leaders wanted an open place with about 100 acres of contiguous land, but not so far from the city that those of its about 360 children (grades K4-8th) who take school busses would have longer trips.
In early 2000, the school purchased in Franklin more than 150 acres of land. Some of that area had been zoned agricultural, other parts residential, and it includes some wetlands.
Klimetz, who has been mayor for more than ten years, supported the idea from the start. The best communities, he said, have people from a good cross section of different backgrounds.
Nevertheless, the initial public reaction was mixed, with a slight majority of people skeptical, if not opposed, Klimetz said. People raised many of the same issues surrounding the Karl Campus proposals traffic, green space, noise, lights, taxes. In addition, what Klimetz termed a minority wondered about hearing tom-toms at all hours of the day and night and whether the property might become a casino.
With the help of Barbara Boxer, an attorney with Reinhart Boerner Van Duren SC specializing in government relations, Indian Community School officials embarked on a campaign to educate city officials and the public.
They brought in experts, held public meetings in various places in town and made a video about the school. As we addressed issue by issue and provided information, [opposition] reduced, said Boxer. Eventually, decision-makers felt that the majority of their constituents were for the project. The good people of Franklin spoke louder than the few dissidents.
The Franklin Hub CNI newspaper reported that the Franklin Common Council approved the rezoning unanimously in August 2000. The school is scheduled to open in Franklin in 2003.
Milwaukee Protestant Home
In Mequon during 2000, the Milwaukee Protestant Home sought permission to develop what Steinke described as a continuum of care senior housing project, called Newcastle Place.
At first, the MPH tried to obtain land adjacent to a single-family residential development. However, the neighborhood rose in very verbal opposition to it, said Steinke. They were very well organized with the intent not to have an institutional project next to them.
MPH ended up moving its site to 50 acres of land near the intersection of Port Washington and Highland Roads, within 200 feet of the closest residence, said Steinke. That reduced the intensity of opposition, but it also taught officials of the MPH that they needed to do a little public relations with the community.
MPH officials declined to be interviewed, saying through a spokesperson that they didnt want to comment until the project was completed. (According to Steinke, the building is up but not yet occupied.) The spokesperson did say that the MPH held open houses and sent information mailings to the community.
Steinke added that MPH also designed the building and the landscaping to minimize the visual impact. People were concerned about looking across the street and seeing this [institutional] project staring them in face, Steinke said.
But MPH has gone out of its way to make an esthetic monument. Steinke added that he suspects that the Jewish Home and Care Center, which is also seeking to build a facility in Mequon, will also offer a fine quality development.
Design can overcome all, said Steinke. If a project is well designed and landscape buffers are provided, you can build any type of land use next to other land use and avoid the impacts that spook us all.
Steinke added that in the course of the project, Mequon city officials learned that there is a constituency in the community that values these types of uses. The MPH brought in cars of [Mequon] seniors who said, We want to age in place. We learned ... there is a market in Mequon that wants us to accommodate their needs. We need to hear that.
Still, some important aspects of these instances differ from the situation in Whitefish Bay. For one, in both Franklin and Mequon, there is far more open land available than in the Bay.
For another, Steinke pointed out that Mequons average residential density is one unit per acre. Tim McCauley, principal planner for the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, said it is 6.63 units per acre in the Bay, according to 1990 land use and census figures. (In Franklin in 1990, the number was 2.15, but McCauley said that number is probably higher now as more multi-family units have been built there since.)
Lynne Broydrick, partner in the public affairs consulting firm Broydrick & Associates whose clients include the federation and JCC, the Milwaukee Protestant Home and the Indian Community School said the very closeness that helps make the Bay a wonderful community and very tight knit also has a downside.
Because it is so close knit, people talk to their neighbors over the fence, she said in a telephone interview. Therefore, When a rumor or misinformation is out there, it circulates very quickly in that community.
Moreover, the less green space people see, the more opposed they are to potential changes in it, Broydrick said. They think the green space is community property, and it is not.
Even so, according to documents from Kahler Slater Architects, Inc., the architectural firm for the campus project, the proposal for the campus renovation would maintain a higher percentage of green space (59 to 62 percent) than the average for other non-residential facilities in the Bay (49 percent).