Alderman attributes controversy over Blues Factory to vocal minority, challenger says council has angered residents
There’s little doubt that development pressures have spurred anger in Port Washington recently. In February, incumbent Ald. Bill Driscoll was ousted in the primary election, a result many attribute to controversy over lakefront development, beginning with the city’s decision to sell a lakefront parking lot for the Blues Factory entertainment complex.
Development is likely to be at the forefront again Tuesday when voters will determine the city’s 7th District alderman, picking between incumbent Ald. Dan Becker and longtime community activist and former city engineer John Sigwart.
“There’s a lot of anger out there,” said Sigwart, 72, of 230 W. Theis St.
The anger is a result of a plethora of development proposals that is overwhelming people, Sigwart said, as well as by the fact that the city is for the first time selling publicly owned marina-district land.
There’s also a feeling among residents that they aren’t being heard, Sigwart said. He said this could have been prevented if the city had held an advisory referendum on the sale of the north marina slip parking lot.
Listening sessions such as those held during the election season could also help ease tensions, Sigwart said.
“That’s my primary intent, to get more information out to the public,” he said.
Becker, 48, of 916 N. Grant St., said he believes the city is on the right track, attributing much of the controversy to a vocal minority of residents.
Those residents who have reached out to talk to him have largely been in favor of the council’s actions, he said.
While many people have complained about the pace of development and said the Common Council isn’t listening to their concerns, Becker said that’s just not true.
“I think this minority has been confusing listening with agreeing,” he said. “This has been a very long process, and for people to say this has been speeding along, it just isn’t true.
“Change can be painful, but the things we are pursuing are important to the future of the city so it can continue to thrive and survive.”
Development, Becker said, is needed to increase the city’s tax base and help officials keep a lid on taxes. Unless that’s done, he said, the city will become a bedroom community and city officials will have to choose between raising taxes and cutting services.
The Blues Factory, he said, is a unique venue that can not only serve as a year-round destination but also provide a needed banquet facility and entertainment facility.
Becker said many of the other proposed lakefront developments show promise for the community.
He said he likes the commercial space incorporated in the Marina Shores development proposed for the NewPort Shores Restaurant site, saying it too could create a destination in the city that will bring traffic to downtown year-round.
The building’s proposed height — 4-1/2 stories on Lake Street and six stories at the lakefront — “hasn’t been vetted yet,” Becker said, noting he hasn’t seen a final design proposal. “I’m not saying I am for or against any particular height. Would I be willing to look at something taller than (the 35 foot standard)? Yes. There’s mass down there already. But it needs to be aesthetically pleasing.”
Sigwart said he doesn’t have any concerns about the height of the proposed Marina Shores building, especially since the structure would be near the bluff.
“I believe he (owner John Weinrich) has the right to do something substantial there,” Sigwart said.
Sigwart said he’s more concerned with townhouses proposed for the car-trailer parking lot on the east end of Washington Street across from the Blues Factory.
He said he fears that townhouses, combined with the Blues Factory, will create a tunnel along Washington Street.
“Am I convinced we should have a wall of buildings going down Washington Street? No,” he said.
Sigwart said he can see both sides of the Blues Factory debate, but he would have preferred the building be constructed across the street to keep the lakefront open.
He said he would also like to see the building’s factory-like facade changed or the facade flipped, with the more transparent east end placed closest to Franklin Street and the factory-like facade on the east. That, Sigwart said, might open the lakefront more.
The city needs to do a traffic study, Sigwart added, saying the increased development pressure will make it more difficult to enter and exit the marina district.
Ultimately, he said, he anticipates the city will need to close Pier Street and create a roundabout at the foot of St. Mary’s Hill, and he wants to make sure nothing the city does today will hamper that.
The use of tax incremental financing incentives for downtown development has been a concern for residents as well.
Becker said they’re a needed tool to promote development. If the city doesn’t offer them, he said, developers will take their projects to other communities.
“Without them, we can say goodbye to development in Port Washington,” he said. “In order to get these deals done, the TIF is necessary.”
The city has been careful to ensure any incentives will be repaid over the life of the TIF district, Becker noted, adding that the city overall benefits from the developments that result from the TIF funding.
Sigwart said he is not opposed to the use of TIF funds, although he worries the city “may be on the edge of overdoing it.”
“For industrial growth, I’m 100% for it,” he said. “For commercial development or mixed use, I may be 50% in favor.”
While officials say they are needed to make up the difference in building in the downtown and a greenfield, Sigwart said the fact that the city doesn’t require downtown developments to provide parking should help close this gap, lessening the need for incentives.
Sigwart also said the city should hire a professional planner to help deal with the many proposals it is facing. While city staff does a good job, he said, they need help.
Residents have also questioned the number of closed meetings aldermen have held as they have negotiated with developers.
Becker said the closed sessions are necessary.
“I can tell you, no one is a fan of the closed sessions we are having,” he said. “We would prefer not to have them. But every single time we have met, it has been necessary and according to the letter of the law.”
The number of closed sessions is related, in large part, to the unprecedented number of development proposals being considered by the city, Becker said.
Sigwart pointed out that aldermen typically don’t come out of these meetings until late, when few or no people are present to hear the results.
“I don’t think we’re getting enough discussion on the council floor,” he said.
Sigwart said he is also concerned about the city’s decision to buy the existing senior center rather than seek a larger structure to create a community center, calling it “the worst decision the city has made in the 45 years I’ve been here.”
The Common Council never gave the community center idea the attention it deserved, he said, adding the decision to buy the senior center effectively ends the idea of a community center.
Becker, however, said the council’s decision ensures seniors will have a home well into the future.
“At the end of the day, I think the biggest concern for the seniors was just knowing they had a home,” he said.
He said he didn’t like the idea of buying the Aurora Medical Center on the city’s far west side for a community center, saying it would remove a commercial building from the tax rolls.
“We already have a community center, and it’s called the YMCA,” he said.
Becker, who has been an alderman since 2009, said if elected, this will be his last term.
“I want to see some of the projects the council has taken on through to fruition,” he said.