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Hundreds turned out to oppose city master plan, but are city officials listening?

“Preserve the land first, and then we can talk about development,” said Ald. Michael Walsh at a Wauwatosa Community Affairs Committee meeting on April 11. It was one of several comments that appeared to signal a shift in tone by committee members when referring to Wauwatosa’s Life Sciences District Master Plan.

The committee was discussing a motion by Ald. John Dubinski that alarmed members of the public in attendance. He proposed that, in exchange for preserving a portion of the “Sanctuary Woods,” the parkland would be rezoned in order to allow new development in the existing preserve of County Grounds Park.

Future Land Use plan map

2008 Comprehensive Plan map showing projected future land use. The segment with blue stripes includes parts of County Grounds Park and Sanctuary Woods. Map courtesy of the City of Wauwatosa.

Dubinski introduced his motion by saying that he considered rezoning the park for development the “only way to save the wooded area and wildlife habitats.” Sacrificing County Grounds Park land was acceptable in his view because there are “no mature trees” in the park. Many others in this debate have emphasized saving trees. As Milwaukee County Economic Development Director James Tarantino, who attended the meeting, put it, “Everyone agrees the woods should be protected.”

Rendering of proposed development

Rendering from LSD plan depicting development adjacent to the woods. Courtesy of the City of Wauwatosa.

Man walking dogs in meadow.

The south meadow from a perspective similar to the rendering above.

But not everyone agrees what exactly is included in “the woods,” let alone what constitutes protection. If city planners and the Common Council consider destroying the open prairie to put urban, high density developments on existing parkland in exchange for saving a section of woods, it indicates disregard for the significance of diverse types of habitat and wildlife ecology. Never mind that County Grounds Park was created as part of the compromise that allowed for the development of the Innovation Campus. Never mind that the county has invested considerable time and resources to restoring the park’s habitats with native grasses, wildflowers and, yes, trees. Never mind the will of the people.

A view of Innovation Campus showing undeveloped lots

Only days before the Community Affairs Committee meeting, over 300 people attended the latest public hearing, at which the city had unveiled its revised Life Sciences District planning map (below). The hearing was held at the Muellner Building in order to prevent a repeat of the Open House in February when half the crowd had to wait outside the meeting room in City Hall because it was filled to capacity.

The will of the people was acknowledged during the April 6th presentation. A slide reported that the “vast majority” of written comments from the February open house included these: “Let development happen where it already is; no more development.” Also: “No County Grounds development/Save County Grounds” and “No roads.”

County Grounds zoning map

Concept map showing areas to be developed in brown, all except one of which would encroach on current open space and wildlife habitat. Courtesy of the City of Wauwatosa.

A few moments later, however, these sentiments were ignored when it came to unveiling the revised plan. Not only does the map show new roads and new development on undefined non-park county land but also the unexpected revelation of proposed development east of Discovery Parkway in the actual county park. The proposed new road (which may or may not still bear the name “Scenic Parkway”) extending east from the roundabout and turning north at 92nd Street would require the bulldozing of critical habitats — including the long-eared owls’ roosting site and Butler’s garter snake dens — and fragment the parkland.

Panorama; County Grounds Park

The new concept map shows buildings in front of this panoramic view of County Grounds Park.

The will of the people, expressed during the public comment period following the presentation, was again unequivocal, clear and virtually unanimous in its condemnation of the proposed Life Sciences District Master Plan as revised. In fact, although the issues of the woods, wildlife habitat, and open space were high on the list of concerns, many of the most vocal objections targeted other aspects of the plan. Critical comments about high-rise development, density, congestion, and financial implications of the plan all received spirited applause.

State Street Station under construction

State Street Station under construction in the Village: Many expressed concern that Wauwatosa is overbuilding in an already saturated market.

Many in the crowd expressed dismay at the notion that after 20 years of compromises, which have whittled away more and more of the natural land, they were all back again trying to “save the County Grounds.” Wauwatosa resident John Pokrandt drew loud applause and summed up the mood of the crowd when he said, “We are not asking for two stories instead of ten; we are not asking to move the road; we are not asking for a land swap. We are saying NO! No more compromises, no more development on the County Grounds.”

If the Community Affairs Committee meeting was an adequate barometer, it seems at least some of the Wauwatosa Common Council members have been responsive to this overwhelming public pressure. Many who were present expressed their desire to protect “the woods.” The county, which is and likely will continue to be the landowner, has weighed in recently on the vagueness of “the woods.” In a press release dated April 6, County Executive Chris Abele announced that the county is “surveying the site to establish what in addition to the woods should be protected.”

Monarch and wildflowers

Monarch butterfly with purple asters and goldenrod in County Grounds Park.

Such a survey and determination are long overdue. I am not alone in hoping that the county will enlist the aid of biologists and wildlife ecologists in their effort. “If [Wauwatosa] Mayor Ehley and County Executive Abele are sincere about their desire to protect the ‘woods’ and natural areas, then they should work with environmentalists to identify those areas, create a parcel, and rezone them first,” alderwoman Nancy Welch told me.

Bulldozing parts of County Grounds Park shouldn’t even be considered. Neither should new roads or any new compromises that diminish what’s left of the County Grounds. “Protecting our natural spaces has long been a priority of mine,” said Abele in his press release. We’ve still got a few here that need protecting. I know a lot of folks who don’t want to be “saving the County Grounds” again in another 20 years.

People walking in Sanctuary Woods.

Sanctuary Woods.

The City of Wauwatosa has published the following schedule of meetings regarding the approval process for the Life Sciences District Master Plan:

May 15 – A final draft master plan proposal will be submitted to the Plan Commission, with an opportunity for public comment.
May 22 – A second meeting of the Plan Commission will be held, with no public comment.
June 6 – Introduction at Common Council, set public hearing date, no public comment.
July 18 – A public hearing with public comment will be held in front of the Common Council.
Aug. 1  – A Common Council meeting will be held where final adoption of the master plan will be considered.

The dates are subject to change.

All photos by Eddee Daniel. See more of Daniel’s photos of Sanctuary Woods and the rest of the County Grounds on Flickr.

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