Building heights at issue in Port planning initiative

Plan Commission grapples with question of how tall is too tall for downtown, lakefront structures
Ozaukee Press staff

How tall should buildings in downtown Port Washington be allowed to be?

That was the question asked by Bob Harris, the city’s director of planning and development, as the Plan Commission was updated on the community’s downtown and lakefront plan on July 19.

While Graef, a Milwaukee-based firm, is working on the plans, Harris told commission members he wants their input on downtown height limits.

Downtown zoning allows buildings to be 35 feet or as tall as 64 feet if two-thirds of the Common Council members approve.

But the average height of downtown buildings is about 45 feet, Harris said, adding that in 2004 the average height was 44 feet. Neither number factors in the eight-story Lighthouse Condominium building on Lake Street nor the Ozaukee County Courthouse.

Harris questioned whether the city should increase the 35 feet, incorporate exceptions for such things as elevator hoistways or stairwells, or take some other action.

Mayor Ted Neitzke, the commission chairman, asked if the city could allow shorter heights near the lake and higher ones farther away from the waterfront.

That was allowed at one point, Harris said, but after the Lighthouse Condo building was constructed “there was the thought maybe this was too high.”

Commission member Kyle Knop asked how the 35 foot limit was derived, noting that most downtown buildings are taller than that.

“It feels like that 35 feet ... is not appropriate,” he said. “We probably need to right-size this.”

That’s especially true because new construction calls for more space between floors, he said.

“For 45 feet, you’re getting a three-story building,” Knop said.

He suggested the commission focus on not just the height of a building but also the “doinks,” ancillary pieces that pop up atop structures, such as elevator extensions and mechanicals.

The city has made many exceptions in recent years for those parts of buildings, he said.

“That exception needs to be rather exceptional,” he said.

But, Knop added, just increasing the height limit to 45 may not be the best answer either.

“At 45 feet, people will want to go higher,” he said.

Commission member Eric Ryer suggested the city needs to try and avoid having tall buildings next to shorter ones and creating a sawtooth silhouette to the skyline.

Consistency, he said, is important.

“You want to give it more of a block feeling, not an up and down,” Ryer said.

But commission member Rob Vanden Noven said he is comfortable with the current code because of the flexibility it allows.

“It’s hard to make a rule that addressed every part of downtown,” he said. “It’s the duty of the Plan Commission to make these decisions. The point of having the Plan Commission is we make decisions for the betterment of the city.”

The idea of graduating the height allowance isn’t necessarily fair, he added.

“Should Newport Shores be penalized because they have lakefront property?” he asked.

The commission made no decisions but is expected to address the issue again when it meets in August.

Neitzke asked that the city research height restrictions in other lakeside communities such as Sheboygan.

The commission is also expected to discuss whether the city should encourage single-family housing in downtown, and if so where should it go and what style of building should be permitted, Harris said.

Height limits have been an issue in downtown for decades.

In the 1970s, the maximum downtown building height was increased from 35 feet to 85 feet, but there was significant outcry from the public when the Lighthouse Condo building was approved.

That structure was allowed because it met the 85-foot limit and was on the outskirts of downtown, where taller buildings were considered acceptable.

But because of the backlash, the city repealed the overlay district that allowed it, essentially allowing only 35-foot structures.

But eventually that was considered too restrictive, so the city agreed to allow developers to seek special exceptions for buildings as tall as 61 feet — the average height of the Harbor Square development on the southeast corner of Grand Avenue and Franklin Street.


Click Here to Send a Letter to the Editor

Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


User login