Key points in understanding Wauwatosa’s proposed new master plan for the County Grounds and environs

By Jim Price


More than a year ago, the City of Wauwatosa commissioned a new master plan for the Northeast Quadrant of the County Grounds and surrounding areas stretching from Mayfair Road to Wauwatosa Village. The $200,000 planning contract went to GRAEF, the same firm that carried out plan, design and project management for Innovation Campus. The main thrust of GRAEF’s new plan is that Wauwatosa, as a transportation, retail and medical services hub, has already become a second urban center of the Milwaukee metropolitan area (rivaling downtown Milwaukee) and that it is time for Tosa to depart from suburban-value development (i.e., $1 million to $2 million per acre) and pursue high-value urban-scale development ($3 million to $5 million per acre). That implies doubling or tripling the per-square-foot value of property by increasing scale in both height and density. For example, the typical 3 to 4-story apartment or office building could become 6 to 10 stories with larger footprints in new developments. Setbacks might be decreased, and surface parking reduced through use of underground parking or more parking structures to maximize land value.

This plan envisions possible new development worth an additional $1.7 billion in appraised value, including 6,500 new residential units (mostly rental)250,000 square feet of new commercial office space; up to 125,000 square feet of (non-dining) retail space; and an additional 70,000 square feet of restaurant space. If built out in its entirety, this would be add an estimated $40 million to $50 million in property tax revenues per year.

The plan calls this urban-scale development area the “Life Sciences District” (LSD) – not because of projected new medical/institutional development but rather because it is presumed that the significant increase in apartment units and convenient retail options, etc., would attract employees of the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center (MRMC) to move into the District. In fact, the plan would restrict the expansion of the MRMC itself by confining it to a “Medical District” within boundaries it already mainly occupies south of Watertown Plank Road.

City officials have referred to this as a “20-year plan.” That is a broad, ballpark timeframe. It does not mean that it would necessarily take 20 years to fulfill, nor that every piece of the plan would ever be built, nor that further changes could not occur in the ongoing planning process during 20 years. Master plans may be distinct blueprints, or they may be general guidelines. This one is being billed as among the latter. What is important for the citizen to understand is that what this plan would allow is in many cases very different than what is now permitted in many areas under consideration. To repeat, this plan represents a fairly radical and fundamental change in the collective Wauwatosa frame of mind: It transitions a significant part of Wauwatosa from the realm of low- to moderate-scale suburban development to high-scale, urban-value development.

Where new development would occur

The LSD plan identifies a number of specific geographical areas where the planners believe such urban-value, high-scale, high-density development could take place, as follows:

  • The Mayfair Corridor, bounding the LSD on the west. Planners would encourage higher-scale, higher-density development along Mayfair Road and intersecting thoroughfares as opportunity allows. Since the Mayfair Corridor is already densely developed and subject to few restrictions of scale, this would essentially amount to urban-value redevelopment of currently suburban-value properties when or if the market made them available. For example, a low-value “big-box” store of one story with extensive surface parking might be replaced by several high-rise office buildings with ground-floor retail space, utilizing underground or structure parking. This is necessarily a long-term prospect, as higher-value redevelopment can occur only as opportunity allows and as the market dictates.
  • The Northwest Quadrant of the original County Grounds, northwest of the intersection of Interstate 41 (formerly U.S. Hwy. 45) and Watertown Plank Road. Planners envision high-scale, high-density commercial development here; however, the land is already occupied by tenants that will be unlikely to move anytime soon. They are: the Wisconsin Lutheran College (WLC) Athletic Fields; the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office Patrol Division; and Milwaukee County Department of Public Works Maintenance Yard. Milwaukee County and Wauwatosa missed a golden opportunity to redevelop the latter two properties at very high value during the Watertown Plank Road Intersection Reconstruction phase of the Zoo Interchange Project. The old and decrepit Sheriff’s Patrol Division station and DPW Yard could have been relocated then, with much of the cost carried by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WDOT). Instead, the Sheriff’s Office got a brand-new building and the DPW Yard was greatly refurbished. The cost of either being relocated now or in the foreseeable are likely to be significantly higher. As for the WLC Fields, it is hard to imagine the college giving up its property except for a huge return, and it is even harder to imagine where WLC would relocate its fields, especially since its local prospects would be severely limited by this very plan.
  • The Milwaukee County Research Park would be “infilled” with much more mixed-use, high-scale, high-density commercial development. Up to now, the Research Park, as its name suggests, has been largely (though not entirely) restricted to private tenants with an interest in technology research and development. Ranging from GE Medical, a headquarters for high-tech medical technology employing more than 2,000 people, to small-scale tech startups, the Research Park was conceived as a campus-like environment, with certain restrictions on density. The GRAEF plan would encourage landowners in the Research Park to subdivide their properties and allow new, non-technology oriented businesses to fill in what are now landscaped areas and parking lots. A member of the Economic Development Advisory Committee said in its November meeting that so far, the Research Park was giving “push-back” to the GRAEF plan and was reluctant to give up its initial mission.
  • UWM Innovation Campus would be infilled with mixed-use commercial development after all current restrictions on type, height and density were rewritten. Initially, Innovation Campus was to be restricted to UWM’s own planned Engineering Technology Center and to up to 16 additional buildings for technology “partners,” research-oriented private tenants. All were to be subject to height and density restrictions much like the Research Park, with a campus-like aesthetic and ample, naturalized open space. The GRAEF plan recommends doing away with all such restrictions in favor of high-density, high-scale (10-story or more) commercial development with no preference for high-tech research and development tenants. It would encourage general commercial office, residential and retail development instead. UWM’s Innovation Campus, as such, would constitute no more than the 25,000-square-foot Accelerator building. The site of the proposed 150,000-square-foot UWM Engineering Center, so far unfunded and unbuilt, would be relegated to dense commercial development. Up to now, only three private developments have occurred on Innovation Campus – ABB Inc.; Mandel Group’s Echelon Apartments; and a Marriott Residence Inn hotel – all of which had to build under the existing restrictions. The City of Wauwatosa created a tax-incremental finance district (TIF) to pay for infrastructure, being Discovery Parkway and utility service for all prospective tenants, totaling $12.5 million. That incremental cost is now being born by the three private tenants and UWM Real Estate Foundation, along with property maintenance costs. Innovation Campus, as such, must be regarded as a failure of public planning.
  • Sanctuary Woods is the commonly accepted name for a tract of approximately 55 acres north of already developed properties north of Watertown Plan Road, between Discovery Parkway and N. 87th Street. These properties are currently owned by Milwaukee County and until recently were zoned for medical/institutional use and were reserved for possible future expansion of the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center. The MRMC has now released that lease-holding. Discovery Parkway and N. 87th streets would be connected by a new street running east-west across the Northeast Quadrant of the County Grounds south of County Grounds Park and the eastern MMSD stormwater detention basin (south of Swan Boulevard). The LSD plan assumes that Milwaukee County will sell the properties in question, for the roadway and for private, commercial development on the south side of it. While the plan calls for preserving part of the Sanctuary Woods, the road would encroach on areas that are identified as critical habitat for a number of rare species.
  • The Glenview Heights Neighborhood lies to the east of the County Grounds, north of Watertown Plank Road and consists of four north-south, single-family residential streets all ending in culs-de-sac. The new east-west road conceived in the LSD plan would continue east along the north edge of Glenview Heights, connecting the neighborhood streets and opening up more property for large-scale development including multi-story apartment buildings.
  • Wauwatosa Village – The east-west road would continue north of Harwood Place and terminate at what is now the city public parking lot beneath and to the west of the Harmonee Bridge, opening up more properties for development. However, accessing this route and creating these new development properties would require the buyout and/or relocation of the large Western Building Products factory now occupying the site west of the public parking lot. As of now, Western has shown no inclination to sell.

 Summary of these potential development areas

Considering each of these areas identified in the LSD plan, separately and as a whole, it is clear that roadblocks stand in the way of much of what is envisioned. Mayfair Corridor requires redevelopment that can occur only when current tenants depart. Northwest Quadrant redevelopment could occur only if current tenants are relocated. Research Park development would require a change in mission of the park and agreement to subdivide its properties. Innovation Campus development would require rewriting of Tosa zoning ordinances and agreement by UWM and the Wauwatosa City Council to repeal current planning and zoning restrictions. Glenview Heights development will face strong opposition from residents of the neighborhood, who fear congestion and loss of privacy as well as of property value. Only Sanctuary Woods offers opportunities for new development on “open” land with few obstacles other than growing public opposition. As such, a GRAEF spokesperson referred to the Sanctuary Woods area in public meeting of the Wauwatosa Economic Development Commission as “the low-hanging fruit” and as “the easiest to get done soon.”


Economic risks to the community

Typically, and as was the case with Discovery Parkway, the City of Wauwatosa would be responsible for creating infrastructure and providing access to utilities to serve any new development where such does not exist. This would apply mainly to the planned new roadway connecting Discovery Parkway to the Village, or to any portion of it that might be built. This, if it were to follow the usual plan, would require major bonding/borrowing and the creation of a tax-incremental financing district to repay the public debt.

As we have seen from the example of Discovery Parkway and the Innovation Campus development it was built to serve, not all things go as planned, and the debt from its construction bears on just a handful of tenants. It is clear that without the attraction of the intended UWM Engineering Center, development has been difficult under the restrictions of the Innovation Campus master plan. However, the new LSD plan assumes that this existing debt and more new debt would be carried by offering properties for relatively unrestricted private, commercial development.

However, there are many signs growing in the local and national economy that suggest the market for such large-scale development may be evaporating. According to the Wall Street Journal, the market for more new urban apartment development in cities nationwide will end in 2017. A recent article in the New York Times noted that the number of millennials moving into urban centers has already reached a plateau and is now dropping to levels that will no longer sustain new development aimed at them as new residents and consumers. And, at least one large downtown Milwaukee apartment owner recently announced it was offering discounted rents.

The LSD plan appears to assume a market hungry for development in Wauwatosa with no end in sight. If, in fact, the market is leveling off and may even disappear, then Wauwatosa would be putting itself and its citizens at even greater risk of assuming debt that may not be repaid by developments that fail to take place.

The LSD plan also appears to assume that UWM’s Innovation Campus, as originally conceived, will never come to pass; that the Milwaukee County Research Park has reached its final capacity for technology-oriented growth; and that the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center will never need to grow beyond the district it mostly occupies south of Watertown Plank Road (relocation of the County Mental Health Center could offer growth opportunities there). Essentially, rezoning and offering all these properties for commercial development puts a permanent end to the ambitious plan to create a world-class technology innovation center for the Milwaukee Region. It may appear now that the creation of this high-tech center is not feasible, once this LSD plan is adopted it would become impossible. This seems short-sighted. Far more economic benefit could eventually be realized from developments that would create new, high-paying research and development jobs than from local mixed-use development.

Environment impacts

The Sanctuary Woods area is identified by the Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission as “an isolated environmental corridor” that provides critical habitat for a wide variety of wildlife. While not all the woods would be directly impacted by the planned LSD road and developments, areas that would be include habitat that supports a winter communal roosting site for the long-eared owl, dens of the Butler’s garter snake, and nests of the northern flying squirrel, all Wisconsin DNR-listed species of special concern. While this status does not confer the protections afforded to species listed as “threatened” or “endangered,” it serves as a guiding point for public officials in planning and permitting. By definition, species of special concern are rare, have specific habitat needs for survival, and “may become imperiled with extirpation” through further habitat loss.

In addition, Sanctuary Woods is known throughout southeast Wisconsin as a prime bird-watching location for many other species, whether breeding, wintering or migrating.

It is the opinion of scientists who have studied the area that the LSD plan, if adopted and built as planned, would have a detrimental impact on wildlife in the entire Sanctuary Woods by reducing and further fragmenting the available habitat, and would effectively destroy habitat particularly for the three special concern species mentioned above.

The scale of development proposed in the LSD plan also continues the trend toward replacing more open space and natural vegetation with impermeable surfaces – buildings, roads and parking lots – that further increases stormwater runoff at a time when the capacity of local streams and the ability of MMSD to manage runoff are already tested.


Impacts to the human environment

The LSD plan for high-scale “urban value” development changes the complexion of Wauwatosa and raises concerns about increased congestion in an already congested area. While local thoroughfares, including Mayfair Road and Watertown Plank Road, have recently been widened to offer additional capacity, the proposed addition of up to 6,500 new residences and hundreds of thousands of square feet of new office and retail space suggests that even that added capacity could become strained. The traffic choke-point that is Wauwatosa Village, just revamped to be more pedestrian-friendly, would become subject to more vehicular traffic, not less.

While the LSD plan touts the amount of green space that would be retained for public recreation, much of that space would, in the event of full realization of proposed development, become hemmed in by dense, high-rise buildings.

For residents of Glenview Heights, the current plan would spell an end to the quality of life afforded by living on quiet culs-de-sac bounded by woods and streams.


Ethical questions – a betrayal of the public trust

Planning for the Northeast Quadrant of the County Grounds has been ongoing since 1998 when then-County Executive Thomas Ament proposed selling the entire tract for private development. The public outcry against this proposal was so overwhelming, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors voted to remove the property from any threat by local governments by turning it over to the state of Wisconsin to manage as the County Grounds State Forest. Unfortunately, Ament vetoed this action. Nevertheless, the public had spoken loud and clear that it wanted the Grounds to be preserved as open space.

However, Milwaukee County and the City of Wauwatosa soon came back to the public with a proposal to create an “economic development zone” on 60 acres of the Quadrant. Many opposed the idea, but eventually a consensus was reached on the promises that: 1.) No more private development would ever take place on the Quadrant; 2.) that economic gains realized by the plan would in part pay for the preservation and restoration of the Eschweiler Buildings; and 3.) that all development upon the zone would be subject to restrictions in height, density and style that would preserve the natural and historic character of the grounds. These restrictions were adopted and codified not just once, but multiple times in city master plans, including as recently as 2013.

What has happened to these promises to the public? The original economic development zone grew quickly from 60 to 90 acres. The Eschweiler Buiildings were privatized or torn down. And now the City proposes to remove all restrictions on development that citizens demanded, not only on Innovation Campus but on even more of the Quadrant that they were told would never be given over to commercial development.

This final betrayal of the public trust would come in part because of poor planning decisions already made by the City and other public entities. Perhaps Innovation Campus has not come to fruition as a hub for public-private technology innovation through no fault of Wauwatosa’s, but UWM agreed to purchase the property and Wauwatosa agreed to build Discovery Parkway before the was any assurance that the project would be funded. When it was not, in fact, funded, UWM and Wauwatosa went forward anyway as if by some magic the plan could succeed without its central component. The strain this has placed on UWM and Wauwatosa is not sustainable and should never have been assumed in the first place. Perhaps this grave mistake cannot now be undone, but it ought to be acknowledged and put to public scrutiny. Yet the only answer UWM and the City seem to have is to quietly create a new plan that tosses out 20 years of public input and trust.

Every public official, in matters of planning, zoning and permitting, is duty-bound to consider the “highest and best use” of any property, and to acknowledge honestly that this, especially where public property is concerned, does not always mean the largest monetary return. The good of the community is the paramount concern, and while increased support of the tax base is such a good, it is not the only nor always the “highest and best” good.

It has for two decades been the position of a majority of Wauwatosa and Milwaukee County  citizens and of their elected governments that the highest and best use of the Northeast Quadrant of the County Grounds was and would remain a delicate balance between large, open public spaces and limited, low-scale, low-density development reserved mainly for academic, institutional and private-partnership research and development of innovative technologies that would serve the community and, frankly, the world at large.

This LSD plan has all the hallmarks of having been created by and for commercial development firms. It fails to affirm any of the highest and best use standards that have been agreed to for 20 years regarding these parcels.

Members of the Wauwatosa Common Council may and likely will say that they are not bound by the actions of earlier councils. It is true that times and circumstances do change. Some zoning restrictions that seemed appropriate to the 1950s certainly may not apply in the 21st Century. But the restrictions on type and scale of development on the Northeast Quadrant were reaffirmed just a few years ago under the same mayor, the same city administrator and director of economic and community development, and many of the same Common Council members. This is not a reconsideration of the actions of “an earlier council.” If adopted, it will be a reversal of policy by the same Council in the face of certain public opposition, conceived only as a desperate measure to undo a previous clumsy and damaging mistake.

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