PRESS EDITORIAL: Reclaim the public’s harbor land

The truth is, Port Washington never did look much like a New England fishing village. Still, the term, used in tourism advertising, was not totally out of character for a pretty little city with a downtown nestled among a series of hills beside a freshwater sea.

But that description is certainly not going to come to mind for anyone who visits Port Washington today. There is nothing quaint about this vibrant community that now calls its lakefront a marina district and features a downtown marina that is full of glossy yachts and surrounded by tens of millions of dollars worth of newly built condominiums.

The development surge sets Port Washington apart from other cities of comparable size in the region, not only in the economic sense, but in the cachet of having one of the most distinctive architectural statements on the Lake Michigan shore with the boundless expanses of glass and soaring roofline of the soon-to-be-finished Newport Shores building.

Some residents may regret the radical changes to the city skyline and the intrusion into what was once a more open lake vista seen over the smaller old buildings that used to occupy the lakefront. But the redevelopment of the privately owned land overlooking the lake was inevitable, and any nostalgia it may encourage, while understandable, is balanced by the fact that the public retains extraordinary access to the lakefront in the chain of city parks and walkways that surround it.

The bricks, mortar, steel and glass of the new marina district buildings stand not just as symbols of a city in fast-forward mode, but also as an indictment of the past city officials responsible for a development blunder that haunts the city to this day. That blunder has a name. It’s called the Blues Factory.

The remarkable investment manifested by the marina district condos did not sneak up on the city. Anyone could see it coming. Investors were already eyeing privately owned lakefront property five years ago when the mayor in office at the time and a cohort of supporting aldermen decided they would jumpstart development by selling a precious parcel of land at the edge of the harbor owned by the people of Port Washington to a commercial buyer.

Their naive strategy to attract a brewpub or something called a shopping destination fell flat; no one was interested. But when a blues music aficionado proposed building a blues-themed entertainment complex on the site, the elected officials gleefully signed on as cheerleaders for the project and barged ahead with their plan to sell the land. So caught up were they in their development adventure that they failed to see the obvious building boom barreling toward the lakefront.

It didn’t matter to them that large numbers of their constituents opposed selling the land and said so loudly and clearly in an advisory referendum and heavily attended protests at City Hall. The Common Council members were not only undeterred, they approved a $1 million subsidy for the developer at taxpayer expense to grease the skids for the land sale and the building planned to fill the site.

Even when the would-be creator of the Blues Factory backed out after failing to attract investors, stubborn officials persisted, and three years ago the harbor land was sold to another developer.

The aldermen who led the charge that resulted in this affront to the people of Port Washington were voted out of office, but the land known as the north slip parking lot remains in the hands of an owner who can do pretty much whatever he wants with it. During the past summer, the busiest on record for the marina district, the site was used to store construction material and equipment. Under the present private ownership, it is all but certain that the Blues Factory or some other commercial structure will be built there.

The marina district is already nearing the tipping point where more development would be too much. But beyond that, the Blues Factory site, which sits between an extremely dense condo complex that covers an entire city block and the north slip of the marina, is singularly unsuitable for another multi-story building.

The land should remain open space, some of it used to provide badly needed parking spaces, and some dedicated to landscaped overlooks for public viewing of the harbor.

Elected office holders in the current city government are not responsible for the Blues Factory fiasco, but they do have a duty to make amends on the city’s behalf by doing what it takes to return the land to its rightful owners—the citizens of Port Washington.

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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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