PRESS EDITORIAL: Cool it. Ozaukee Square is too big to go fast.

The proposal to tear down the Port Washington City Hall to make way for what would be one of the largest structures ever built in the city is the lightning rod for criticism of the Ozaukee Square development.

That’s understandable.

The proposition to sacrifice a sound and attractive City Hall building that is adequate for the city’s needs and sits on the historic location of the Port Washington city government for a huge apartment building and parking structure deserves a skeptical response.

But focusing on this controversial feature ignores the proverbial elephant in the room—the fact that the development consists of two elephantine edifices, one of which would front on Grand Avenue in a downtown area that is admired for its electic mix of relatively small-scale buildings.

At last week’s Common Council meeting, attended by a large number of residents, most of whom criticized the development, Ald. John Sigwart asked developer Cindy Shaffer to come back with a plan that preserves City Hall and the adjacent Old Theatre building that was also marked for demolition, even if it meant there would be an eight-story building.

“What does it take to keep these buildings in place?” Sigwart asked.

That sounds like a chip in a bargain that could end badly for citizens who think a megadevelopment of this nature is wrong for Port Washington.

No architectural drawings of the Ozaukee Square buildings have been presented, but their bulk can be imagined. According to the developer, each building would be five stories high and large enough to contain 90 apartments. A multi-story parking facility for the public and tenants would be part of the development.

Taxes paid on the properties would amount to almost $600,000 a year, the developer estimated (though that reward would be delayed if the request for TIF were granted).

This is music to the ears of the city officials who have to create the budgets and levy the taxes to pay for ever more demanding city services. But this can often result in the worthiness of a development being judged predominantly by its ability to increase the valuation of property in the city.

Tax base rules, even though a record of the sins committed in the name of tax base would fill a thick book.

The possibility that Ozaukee Square could be a candidate for such a book based on its size, archtectural design or other impact on the community should be a signal to slow down an approval process that seems to be accelerating.

It was only a few weeks ago that aldermen were given sneak peeks at the development (in groups of two apparently to avoid public disclosure by triggering the Open Meetings Law). Now, after the first public consideration by the Common Council, the developer has an invitation to make a few revisions and come back, perhaps with the expectation of approval.

The city has no obligation to speed the approval process. On the contrary, its obligation to the people of Port Washington is to put it on hold until the impact of Ozaukee Square on a downtown whose small-town character is one of the city’s most appealing features can be fully understood.

The Downtown Plan Committee should be tasked to weigh the pluses and minuses and answer the question of whether buildings of this scale fit Port Washington, particularly the on Grand Avenue building. As that is being decided, ample opportunities for public input should be a requirement.

The interest in Port Washington by Shaffer Development is welcome. The firm has accomplished ambitious projects in Mequon. Some of the features of Ozaukee Square, especially its provision for affordable residential units, are desirable. And parts of the block it is targeting are ripe for redevelopment. The challenge to Shaffer should be to remold the development to fit Port Washington.

And, needless to say, that should not include the sacrifice of City Hall.

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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
 

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