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Blues Factory debate fuels Port primary race PDF Print E-mail
Written by Kristyn Halbig Ziehm   
Wednesday, 15 February 2017 22:39

Incumbent faces challenge next week from candidates who oppose sale, development of city-owned lakefront lot

Growth and development in Port Washington, particularly the city’s decision to sell a publicly owned lakefront parking lot for the Blues Factory, have polarized the community and are now shaping the race for the 3rd District aldermanic seat.

Incumbent Bill Driscoll is a staunch proponent of growth, saying it’s necessary for the city’s future, and his defense of the Blues Factory as a piece of the development puzzle has not wavered.

But his challengers, Don Cosentine and Mike Gasper, don’t agree. Both say the Blues Factory decision prompted them to seek office, and both have differing views of development in the city.

Those opposing viewpoints will take center stage Tuesday, Feb. 21, when the candidates face off in a primary election. The top two vote-getters will appear on the Tuesday, April 4, general election ballot.

Cosentine, 72, of 518 Brentwood Ct., said he would prefer the city use the parking lot now slated for the Blues Factory as a public space, saying people often park there and look at the lake.

He said there are several things he doesn’t like about the Blues Factory proposal — its emphasis on the blues, which he said isn’t popular, and the architecture, which resembles the former Chair Factory.

“Why do we want to copy an old building?” he asked.

Downtown development in general shouldn’t copy the existing architecture, Cosentine said, but be in a more modern style.

Major projects, he added, should be decided not by the Common Council but by referendum, and more information should be made public before major decisions are made.

“I want everyone to be heard,” Cosentine said, adding he would call people in his district to get their opinions on major issues.

Gasper, 38, of 514 W. Chestnut St., said he opposes the Blues Factory largely because most people seem to.

“I haven’t heard anyone in Port who seems to be in favor of it,” he said. “Their city officials’) vision seems to be different from most people.

“I think on big picture things, you absolutely need to reflect what your constituents want.”

Gasper said he’s not against the Blues Factory concept— particularly the theater space — only the location.

“It could be across the street and be fine,” he said. 

There are better uses for that site, he added, such as a headquarters for the proposed shipwreck sanctuary or a business that requires lake access.

Driscoll, 59, of 812 Noridge Tr., who has been the 3rd District alderman since 2013, acknowledged that the Blues Factory decision has split the community, but said there are solid reasons for approving the sale of the parking lot.

“We need the growth. We need to increase the tax base. We can’t just raise taxes,” he said, especially in the age of levy limits. Officials don’t want to slash services, so growth is their only alternative, he said.

Developing the underused north marina slip parking lot, he said, is a better use for the land than the current use.

“If we gave that property to 1,000 architectural experts, I guarantee not one would say that should be a parking lot,” he said. “I believe if this development doesn’t happen or some development doesn’t happen there, it will be the biggest waste in the city’s history.”

While Driscoll said he understands that some people are upset their view of the lakefront will be blocked, the expanded lakefront walkway and patio incorporated into the Blues Factory will actually open the view to many people.

Driscoll, noting that many people suggested the Blues Factory be moved to the adjoining shopping center, said the city worked diligently with the property owners to try and make that happen. They were unsuccessful, so the city was left with using the property it does control — the parking lot. 

Of the people who have contacted him about the issue, Driscoll said, more favor the Blues Factory than oppose it.

In terms of other marina district developments — townhouses proposed by architect Stephen Perry Smith and Ansay Development’s plans for a 44-unit apartment building and a six-story commercial development on the NewPort Shores restaurant property  — Gasper said he prefers to see smaller-scale development.

That, Gasper said, would allow maximum flexibility and benefit the community.

He said he would advocate for a form-based zoning code in downtown that would set the parameters for structures rather than the current use-based zoning.

“Anything new should fit into what’s already there,” Gasper said, and form-based zoning would be a better way to ensure that happens. 

Gasper also said he opposes the use of development incentives through the tax incremental financing district. TIF districts were originally intended to redevelop blighted property, he said, and should be used only for that purpose.

Otherwise, he said, the city is taking on some of the risk of development.

Many communities do use TIF development incentives, he acknowledged, “but from my perspective, it’s not something you should do. A lot of cities are doing that, but does that make it the right thing to do?”

Driscoll said that even though he personally believes the TIF should be used for infrastructure improvements, the city has no choice but to offer incentives if it wants development.

“We have to play by the rules if we want to be competitive and succeed,” he said. “It’s a competitive tool that must be used, but it must be used correctly.”

The city has done that, Driscoll said, by ensuring that developments will repay the incentives through increased property tax payments by the time the TIF district expires and using conservative estimates when it calculates risk.

Driscoll said he has mixed feelings about some of the other proposed lakefront developments, particularly the height and mass of the larger buildings.

“There’s no question that mass and height are two things I want to make sure we get right,” he said, adding the uses are good ones since residential development will help bolster downtown business.   

The downtown can’t stay the way it is, Driscoll added.

“We’re either going to grow or we’re going to die,” he said.

Cosentine is also wary of other proposed lakefront developments, such as the townhouses proposed by architect Stephen Perry Smith and apartments proposed by Ansay Development.

“To see Port Washington grow is wonderful, but let’s slow it down a bit,” he said. “I think people appreciate coming to a town that doesn’t change much or change too quickly.”

Cosentine questioned the need for downtown housing, saying he fears it will crowd the area and exacerbate parking problems. 

“Condos and apartments are not the answer for downtown,” he said. “Perhaps offices would be better for downtown.”

Instead, Cosentine said he favors creating a transportation system that would take Port residents to places such as Bayshore Town Center and bring those residents to Port to shop.

“I think that would bring development to downtown, more so than condos and apartments,” he said.

Cosentine also disagreed with the use of development incentives, saying too many of the developments offer little to residents.

He said people should vote for him because he is willing to listen to them and would slow the decision-making process down so that the people can be heard.

Gasper said he will bring a new perspective to government and work to ensure projects brought to the Common Council are financially viable now and in the future. 

“I’m not afraid to vote against the crowd,” he said. “I haven’t liked the entire direction the council has gone. People live here because they like the charm, and they don’t want to see it all changed to generate tax base.”

Driscoll, who pledged this will be his last term if he’s re-elected, said he has proven that he is willing to get involved, citing his work on the senior center and breakwater.

Those are two projects he would like to see through to completion, he added.

“I will give things the thought and hard work they deserve, and I’m certainly willing to listen and discuss anything with anyone,” Driscoll said.

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