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The vitality of libraries PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 10 August 2016 20:35

Public libraries in Wisconsin took a hard hit in Gov. Scott Walker’s budget in 2011 with a deep cut in state aid. That hurt, and the pain continues because the reduced funding level has remained unchanged for the past five years. Still, state residents should probably be thankful it wasn’t worse, given the repeated pronouncements that the days of libraries are numbered in the Internet era.

Reports of the demise of libraries have not only been exaggerated, as in Mark Twain’s deathless quote about his own mortality, they’ve been flat wrong. Libraries have thrived even as the World Wide Web has expanded its influence as a repository of information.

  Libraries are still relevant because they have adapted adroitly to the rise of information technology by using the Internet and other means of electronic communication to provide some of their services and because the printed word—still the mainstay of library resources—remains a cultural necessity.

The community libraries of Ozaukee County reflect this vigor, and can look forward to an even healthier future thanks to the decision by the County Board last week to approve the merger of the Eastern Shores Library System, to which the public libraries in Ozaukee and Sheboygan counties belong, with the Mid-Wisconsin Federated Library System representing libraries in Washington and Dodge counties.

Library directors like the merger because it is expected that it will help make diminished state funding go further and give their patrons more materials combined with improved access. County officials like it because state law requires county funding for libraries and cost-saving efficiencies are expected under the merger.

The free services provided by community libraries include computers for the public to use, wi-fi, digital books for e-reading devices, DVDs and CDs and expert guidance from librarians to navigate the trove of information available in libraries.

But the heart and soul of these institutions remains the access they provide to the printed word—in current newspapers and magazines and archives of those publications and in books, especially in books.

It was heartening to read in an Ozaukee Press article that Tom Carson, the new director of Port Washington’s Niederkorn Library, plans to make expansion of the library’s already robust printed book collection a priority.

In this, Carson, who came from a position in the Kenosha public library, reflects what librarians across the country are seeing—resurging interest in ink-on-paper books.

Said Carson, “We can’t ignore technology, but we have to realize people still want print books. Studies are showing things are starting to balance out between print and digital.”

When sales of e-book and digital reading devices went through the roof in 2008 along with diminishing book sales, analysts predicted that e-books would overtake traditional books by 2015. It didn’t happen, and digital book sales have slowed markedly in recent years.

With today’s libraries, readers can order virtually any book in print with a few computer keyboard strokes on a website and pick it up at the library desk.

The vitality of libraries is bracing evidence that the culture of reading is very much alive, contrary to perceptions that Americans are increasingly spending their leisure time on such banal pursuits as binging on Facebook and Internet browsing and shopping.

If another reason to applaud the durability of libraries is needed, here it is: Libraries go back thousands of years. Their history shows they are fundamental requisites of civilization and that by making knowledge free to all who want it they are agents of human freedom. Recall what despots do first when they try to steal that freedom: They burn the books.

Port’s diverse habitat PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 03 August 2016 18:54

Big-impact proposals—a blues music complex, apartments and condos on the downtown waterfront, homes and commercial buildings on the lake bluff, a sprawling subdivision on 227 acres of lakeshore land two miles south of the downtown—are making big development news in the City of Port Washington. While these are all potential developments—not a shovel of earth has yet been turned for any of them—development of a smaller, quieter nature has been steadily going forward, and the city is a better place because of it.

This is the development of new affordable housing, a concept that has been relegated to obsolescence in many suburban municipalities. It is alive in Port Washington, and while it is a small movement in terms of the number of homes, it is an important contribution to the character of a city that has thrived as a diverse community of home-owning blue and white-collar workers.

The Ozaukee chapter of Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit organization whose mission is to work toward the goal of ensuring that everyone has a decent place to live, is responsible for a cluster of sturdy, energy-efficient, two-story houses of modest size along South Park Street, adjacent to a neighborhood of older houses.

Construction is underway now on a house in the Park Street Habitat “subdivision” that will be home for a mother and a son who is disabled and needs wheelchair-accessible living quarters. Though built by unpaid volunteers (with expert supervision), Habitat homes are not gifts. Residents are chosen based on criteria meant to ensure they will be responsible homeowners. They are required to have jobs and earn enough to make regular payments on the no-interest mortgages Habitat provides, as well as pitching in on the building process. The idea is that Habitat homeowners will be contributors to the vitality of the community.

That this is the ninth Habitat home to be built in Port Washington is a credit not just to that organization, but to the city government, whose officials have been welcoming and helpful in facilitating Habitat’s good work.

Habitat for Humanity is also building a house in Grafton, but there it took a yearslong battle to get approval from village officials, who seemed to have difficulty understanding the value of allowing a bit of space to be used to encourage the construction of housing that people of modest means can afford.

Back in Port Washington, compact housing on affordable lots is also getting a boost from Mike Spies’ Timber Creek Development company, which has built a row of appealing two-story houses on land along Division Street that had been shunned for years because of its proximity to a foundry.

While modern in every way, particularly in its state-of-the-art energy conservation features, the development is reminiscent of some of Port Washington’s attractive older neighborhoods, where closely spaced houses have small yards with garages placed discreetly behind the homes.

These neighborhoods dating to the early and mid-20th century, shaded and quieted by mature trees, continue to thrive, and serve as an example of how well-designed residential streets can contribute to community life. Today they fill a need for starter homes, which in many cases have been improved by proud owners.

Though it is subject to the pressures of suburban development, Port Washington remains a traditional community in which middle-class families can live and work. Though the days when Port neighborhoods were populated by people who had good-paying jobs at the city’s then-thriving manufacturing plants have passed, the affordable house ethic that has sustained the city for 181 years endures. 

Port Washingtonians can be proud that even as development plans for fabulous tourist attractions and luxury lakeshore housing are extolled, the city remains a community in which families of diverse prosperity levels can afford to live.

Bluff land needs planning expertise PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 27 July 2016 19:06

Hire a professional planner to create a plan for the development of an extraordinary tract of lakeshore land.

If that sounds like an obvious course of action, consider the context: The land is in Port Washington, a city that is forging ahead with development of some of its most sensitively located sites without a comprehensive plan to deal with the impact on the marina district.

That mistake must be avoided when the 44 acres of land along the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan south of the power plant are developed.

The land represents an opportunity of a community’s lifetime for the City of Port Washington. Few coastal cities anywhere possess a resource this valuable. The land would have been developed decades ago, probably in haphazard fashion, had it not been acquired in the early 20th century and guarded for future power plant expansion by the company that is now WEC Energy Group.

The land, given to the city early in this century as part of a deal in which city officials agreed to not oppose construction of a new gas-fired power plant on the waterfront, was the subject of a meeting of the Community Development Authority last week.

The CDA gathering was not even official—it lacked a quorum—but it may well prove to be one of the group’s most significant meetings. For it was there that the first inklings of an enlightened vision for the use of the land appeared and the recommendation that the city not proceed without the help of a professional planning firm was made.

The recommendation came from Jason Wittek, an adviser to the CDA. Without independent, professional planning, Wittek said, “I’m afraid we’re going to get four streets and 40 lots. I think we could aspire to more.”

As things stand, the Common Council intends to use the RFP (request for proposals) procedure—just ask developers to submit proposals for what they would do with the land. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that is how the development of the north slip parking lot was handled.

Lacking the guidance of a comprehensive master plan, the idea of selling the publicly owned marina district land for commercial development rose out of a brainstorming session along with the bewildering notion that the property should be used as a site for a brewpub. RFPs were sent out. Only one proposal was returned, not for a brewpub, but for an equally dubious use of public lakefront space—a blues music complex. The Common Council accepted it amid a polarizing controversy that shows no signs of abating.

Decisions on how the lake bluff land will be used should not be left to developers, whose interests rarely align with those of the public. Some promising general ideas for its use were voiced at the CDA meeting. It should be residential. The location and character of the land support that use and it be would the most reliable tax base generator. It should be creatively designed as a city neighborhood rather than as an off-the-shelf suburban subdivision.

The land comes with some challenges. Though it is only about half a mile from the downtown, it is still quite rural in character. Because the massive power plant and its extensive surroundings stand between the bluff land and the downtown, the area will never seem physically joined to the city.

Wittek, a disciple of the urbanist school of land-use planning, suggests a compact urban neighborhood with an eclectic mix of single and multiple-family housing.

There much to be admired in that approach, but the bluff land should not be treated as though it were 44 acres of inland space. The proximity of the lake cannot be ignored, and larger lots for upscale houses taking advantage of the water views should be part of the mix. So too should natural areas for public use.

All of this can be sorted out in a proper master plan. If the city has no money in its budget to hire a planner, then it should put action on the bluff land on hold until it does. There is no rush. But there is a need to get this development right.

Then, by all means, send out some RFPs—not to developers, but to planners who can propose how they will guide the city in taking advantage of this once-in-its-lifetime opportunity.

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