Grafton has I-43. Port Washington has Lake Michigan. The lake is Port’s freeway.
The metaphor is about real estate development. The City of Port Washington is on the threshold of development so immense that it begs comparison to the retail explosion that added tens of millions of dollars worth of valuation on the Village of Grafton’s east edge.
Grafton’s development is mainly big-box commercial on land that was irresistible to investors because it fronts the freeway. Port Washington’s development will be mainly residential on land that is irresistible to investors because it fronts Lake Michigan.
The combined value of developments proposed for Port Washington’s marina district and lake bluff land south of the power plant approaches $100 million.
Aldermen’s heads must have been spinning after the six-hour Common Council meeting last week during which three complicated proposals for a complex of houses, multifamily residential units, community buildings and some commercial-use structures were pitched by competing developers for the 44 acres of lake bluff land.
Sorting out the proposals to determine which will best benefit the city economically and aesthetically is a daunting challenge. Taxpayers likely would not object if some city funds were spent on consultants to lend expertise to the process.
One judgment concerning the bluff land, however, should come easily. The proposal by a Mequon company that wants to acquire the land for a token one-dollar payment deserves quick elimination. The land, owned by the people of Port Washington, is worth millions. Developers are eager to acquire it not to perform a public service, but to reap business profits. That’s fine, but they should have to pay market value for the resource that makes their project possible.
Besides free land, the Mequon developer wants a $6 million TIF subsidy from city. The other two developers are asking for roughly $4 million in taxpayer contributions. City officials will have to answer questions of where this money would come from—the bluff land is not in a TIF district—and whether developer subsidies are needed at all in what is obviously a seller’s market. Meanwhile, the first public benefit of the impending development of the bluff and marina district land is already at hand. The surge in economic growth promised by these projects has rendered the Blues Factory irrelevant.
The city’s rationale for selling public land at the edge of the north slip marina for this entertainment complex has always been that it is necessary to foster a “catalytic” development.
Now it is perfectly clear that the notion of bringing this attraction in to encourage development has no merit whatsoever. The development is here without it.
Moreover, the marina district development plans make the north slip land more valuable than ever as public greenspace overlooking the water. Except for the main marina parking lot, it will be the last open space in the north sector of the district. Filling it with the factorylike Blues Factory building would not only interfere with the public’s enjoyment of the water, it would diminish the appeal of surrounding residential development.
The developer anointed by the city to take over the Blues Factory project, New Port Holdings, is involved in development plans for both the bluff land and the marina district. The company would be doing a service to the city in which it is investing by cutting its ties with the troubled Blues Factory initiative.
That would give city officials a face-saving way to end a bitter controversy that has divided the community and clear the way for Port Washington to reap the rewards of its fortunate proximity to its Lake Michigan freeway.