Developers nix condo plan, city threatens lawsuit

Owners of downtown Port shopping center who abruptly pulled project now ordered to raze or repair vacant grocery store

A RENDERING SHOWS the condominium development planned for the vacant grocery store space at the north end of the Port Harbor Center, a plan embraced by city officials who approved a concept plan and height variance for the building and facilitated talks between the shopping center owners and the Blues Factory to widen the alley between the buildings to create a public plaza. The strip mall owners last week said they are dropping the plan, saying they were not able to ensure the alley would be widened enough to guarantee lake views for all the condos.
Ozaukee Press staff

The owners of the Port Harbor Center dropped a bombshell on the Common Council last week by announcing they are dropping their plan to convert the long vacant grocery store on the north end of the strip mall into condominiums for a year, something city officials said essentially kills the project — and the city responded this week by threatening to take them to court if they do not comply with an order to repair or raze the building.

City Building Inspector Gary Peterson sent an order to Don Voigt and Jim Vollmar, who with their wives own the center, requiring them to notify the city what they plan to do by March 5 and to either repair the building or raze it by April 5.

“No further extension will be granted,” Peterson wrote, noting that the city had issued a repair or raze order last year that it extended when the owners began planning the condominium conversion.

City Planner Randy Tetzlaff, who notified aldermen of the owners’ decision at the Feb. 21 Common Council meeting, said of the project, “Essentially, it’s dead.”

The former grocery store on the north slip has been vacant for decades, prompting numerous complaints from residents and officials. Late last year, the owners stepped forward with a plan to use the property for 10 condominiums — a project that met with praise both for its use of the site and the coastal architecture.

But in a Feb. 21 letter to the city, Vollmar said the owners decided to wait at least a year, until the proposed Blues Factory is built on the neighboring north marina slip parking lot, before deciding whether to move forward.

While they had been working with the city and the Blues Factory to negotiate a wider alley and public plaza between the buildings, Vollmar said, the concessions they had reached were not adequate.

“Eight of 10 proposed residential units will realize a claustrophobic view of the blank wall 30 feet away,” Vollmar wrote. “At the present time we do not believe it is wise to invest additional money in the current building plans that, in our opinion, may not be utilized.”

The reaction of aldermen was swift.

“I’m done with Jim and Don,” Ald. Paul Neumyer said. “As far as I’m concerned, we’ve been duped. “The biggest comment we’ve gotten for years is how ugly it (the former grocery store) is. They’ve done nothing to improve it.

“It’s time for the building to go.”

Ald. Dan Benning agreed, saying, “We don’t need a sore thumb there when they’re trying to enhance the neighborhood and the community. That building has to come down.”

“This is extremely frustrating,” Ald. Mike Ehrlich said. “These guys have done this over and over again to the point I’m wondering if they ever were serious.”

Ald. John Sigwart said the shopping center owners realized during negotiations with the city that the architectural drawing they had been relying on was not to scale, and they needed a greater separation between the Blues Factory and their project than they anticipated.

“That 35 feet (between the buildings) did not open it up enough, so they didn’t get the views,” Sigwart said.

Architect Mark Helminiak, who developed the condo plans, told the city in November that widening the alley between the condo and the Blues Factory to as much as 30 feet, perhaps slicing a corner off the Blues Factory structure, would be adequate to create a public gathering space there.

In an interview, Voigt said the owners need more space between the buildings than originally anticipated, perhaps 70 feet, something the Blues Factory was not willing to provide.

The agreement reached called for each property owner to move their building by about five feet, he said, which when combined with the current alley provided about half the distance Voigt said was needed to make the condo plan feasible.

City Administrator Mark Grams said that was a compromise both sides had agreed to at their last meeting, one that would provide water views for all the condominiums.

“That’s why we did it,” he said. “We saw on the drawing that it would work.”

And Tetzlaff said Blues Factory developer Gertjan van den Broek “bent over backwards to accommodate what they were doing.” 

Sigwart suggested the city continue to negotiate with van den Broek to widen the alley between the buildings, saying it is important for the community.

The city should also investigate whether the shopping center owners would be willing to sell their property for the Blues Factory, Sigwart said. 

The two sides had tried to do this in the past but could not reach an agreement, he noted.

“I think it’s time to sit down with them and say, ‘Listen, why don’t you try to sell the property to someone who would use it for a development project,” Sigwart said. “We’re trying to do what’s best for the city. What’s best for the city is to get rid of that building.”

Ald. Mike Gasper said it might be time for the city to try and buy the building, noting that blighted areas and the potential contamination on the site are things tax incremental financing districts are intended to deal with.

“We should not be afraid to make an offer,” he said. “This is probably as good an opportunity as we’ll have to convince them (to sell).”

But Ald. Dave Larson said that would be fruitless.

“Trying to negotiate a purchase price for that property will be impossible,” he said. “If the project is dead, the raze order needs to go into effect immediately.”

Mayor Tom Mlada said he would oppose this, saying it would reward the shopping center owners for their inaction, adding that work on the Blues Factory had been delayed as negotiations between the property owners continued.

“This is inexcusable,” he said.

While many people have complained about the appearance of the former grocery store, Ehrlich noted that the repair or raze order was issued by the city because the building is unsafe.

“It’s not because it’s ugly,” he said. “The joists are rusted to the point it’s unsafe. We can’t have buildings that are unsafe.”

Voigt and Grams said the required work is essentially roof repairs.

Voigt said the owners held off on that work because of their condominium plan, but are likely to move forward with the roof repairs.

“We’re not going to tear it down,” he said.

Grams said the city now needs to renegotiate the deadlines in its agreement with van den Broek, who put his plans on hold at the city’s request while negotiating with Vollmar and Voigt. 

Before that’s done, he said, the city will sit down and talk to him about the potential of retaining the wider alley between the buildings.




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