Council divided over Blues Factory deadline

Some aldermen are hesitant to give developer of lakefront complex more time to start construction

WORK TO STABILIZE the north marina slip parking lot is wrapping up, providing a clean slate for the way for construction of the Blues Factory entertainment complex, seen in the rendering at right, to begin. Photo by Bill Schanen IV
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Port Washington aldermen were expected on Tuesday to extend the deadline for construction of the Blues Factory to begin, but that discussion was complicated when City Attorney Eric Eberhardt said doing so could negate the city’s’ option to buy back the land if work on the entertainment complex is not started.

That news left some aldermen suggesting they want to enforce the existing deadline, which would require developer Gertjan van den Broek to begin substantial construction by late September — something van den Broek indicated would be difficult if not impossible — while others still seemed willing to offer van den Broek an extension.

Mayor Tom Mlada noted that van den Broek stopped work on his project to accommodate a request by the city, so the city has an obligation to extend the deadline.

“Whether it was legal or not, it was done in good faith,” he said, referring to the fact the council did not formally act on the matter at the time.

“I want to be fair,” Ald. Dan Benning said.        

Aldermen delayed acting on the proposed deadline extension until their Wednesday, April 4, meeting to give van den Broek time to see if he could meet the original deadline and allow Eberhardt to double check his opinion.

The agreement between the city and van den Broek calls for work on the Blues Factory to start construction within 180 days after work to stabilize the parking lot is completed. If substantial construction has not started by that time, the city can seek to repurchase the north marina slip parking lot within  30 days.

At the heart of the issue is the fact that aldermen asked van den Broek in December to work with neighboring property owners Jim Vollmar and Don Voigt, who were planning to convert a long vacant grocery store into condominiums.

“We asked him to delay it to give him time to work with Don and Jim,” City Administrator Mark Grams said. “In the meantime, his plan was delayed.”

Ultimately, van den Broek said, he agreed to move his building and clip a corner of the structure to widen the alley between them, giving the condos views of the water.

But late last month, Vollmar and Voigt decided not to pursue their plan. Despite this, some officials asked that van den Broek still make the changes to his plan, saying the wider alley and a public plaza would help his project.

Grams suggested aldermen eliminate any deadlines from van den Broek’s development agreement if he agreed to that plan, saying that would allow him to work with Vollmar and Voigt should they change their mind and move forward with their plan.

Ald. John Sigwart said he is not comfortable without any schedule for construction, although he said he would prefer van den Broek continue to implement the changes in his plan.

“The more open space we get there, the happier the public will be,” he said. 

Van den Broek said he is willing to make the changes, adding, “We just want certainty. We know something can get built there. We don’t necessarily want to keep waiting. Our intent is to create certainty so we can plan the building.

“We want to move forward. We keep getting requests to move our building. We want to do what’s right.”

Sigwart originally proposed the city extend van den Broek’s deadline by 120 days to make up for the time he lost while negotiating with Vollmar and Voigt, asking if that is adequate if van den Broek continues to make changes in his plan.

“I can’t committee to that,” van den Broek said, noting his architects and engineers have been working on other projects in the meantime and he doesn’t know when he can get the group together again.

Changes in the design could also force delays in the project, he added.

Sigwart asked that van den Broek give the council a realistic schedule at the April 4 meeting, saying, “Somebody now has to take a risk. I’m asking you to take that risk.”

But after hearing the city could lose its right to buy back the land if it extends the deadline, Sigwart said it may be best to keep the current deadlines.

“I really want you to move forward post-haste,” he told van den Broek. “Our safest position is to do nothing.” 

But Ald. Mike Ehrlich said even if the city retains the current deadlines, it is not obligated to buy back the north marina slip parking lot if construction hasn’t started —especially if van den Broek continues to move forward with his plan

Ehrlich also asked what substantial construction entails, questioning whether clearing the site would qualify.

“In my mind, clearing is part of the construction process,” Ehrlich said.

Ald. Dave Larson questioned if the city could take steps to retain its right to buy back the land if it gave van den Broek an extension.

That’s not likely, Eberhardt said, noting it all has to do with the timing of the recording of the property deed, the city’s option to buy back the land and the mortgage.

If the city’s option is amended and recorded again, the bank holding the mortgage would have priority over the city’s option, he said.  

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