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.