Hundreds of people turned out Tuesday night to a normally quiet committee meeting for the unveiling of a proposed Wauwatosa master plan. Everyone in the room — and the overflow crowd in an adjacent room and out in the hall — all knew why they were present.
Reacting to the prospect of bulldozers poised to plow through the County Grounds, which I discussed in a January 9 column, Mayor Kathleen Ehley didn’t waste time getting to the point in her opening remarks, saying it is untrue that bulldozers would destroy Sanctuary Woods. Her words appeared to be calculated to relieve the anxiety of the audience. Although some in the crowd may indeed have been relieved, no one left the room. Promises have been made before about the County Grounds….
In fact, as the plan itself unfolded, the headline of my column, “Wauwatosa master plan would bulldoze the last corner of the County Grounds,” was born out by a map, which shows not only the new “Scenic Parkway” (renamed from the last draft of the plan), but also a grid of new roads and new (potentially high-rise) development in the southeast corner of the County Grounds. Why the discrepancy?
As the mayor explains in an article by the Milwaukee Business Journal, “Sanctuary Woods” has “no strictly defined borders.” In fact, the name was conjured by the experience of those who enjoy its peaceful character and varied terrain. But the name is slightly misleading — because it includes more than woodlands. The terrain that confronts the specter of bulldozers, according to this plan, includes critical habitat, small woodlands and meadows that are particularly favored by wildlife as well as dog walkers. A small but significant wetland habitat would also be affected by the proximity of “Scenic Parkway.” The planned extension of 92nd Street —for what purpose? — would further fragment an Environmental District that the plan itself identifies as “disjointed.”
The plan would protect the ravine. If the mayor and planners construe Sanctuary Woods to refer solely to the isolated woodland surrounding the ravine, then they would be giving it environmental protection. However, habitats are not so easily bounded. Unfortunately for the many people who enjoy those meadows as well as the wildlife that depends on the non-fragmented integrity of the whole, this plan would greatly diminish the intrinsic — if not the economic — value of the last unprotected 60 acres on this corner of the County Grounds.
In fact, although the justification for developing this natural space is to increase its economic value, the master plan itself recognizes both the appeal and the positive economic impact of parks and natural areas. In a section entitled “Money grows on trees,” it says, “People like being close to parks and green space. Even if they are stalwart urbanites, the trees, flowers, shade and breezes are alluring. Not surprisingly, property values reflect human desires to be near parks through an almost direct correlation between the adjacency of a home to a park and its corresponding property value.”
The plan bears the academic-sounding title of “Life Science District Master Plan.” The district is quite large, extending from Wauwatosa Village on the east to Highway 100 on the west and encompassing all four quadrants of what used to be the whole Milwaukee County Grounds (until successive parts of it were sold and developed.) To its credit, the plan envisions reunifying the disparate segments divided by Watertown Plank Road and Interstate 41. The proposed result would be a mixed-use, high density “metropolitan center.”
The Life Sciences District Master Plan does pay considerable attention to the environment. A stated goal is to “Adopt an Environmental Regulating Plan to preserve, conserve, and socialize the natural environment to guarantee the use of natural features for passive and active recreational use.” The mayor and planners all emphasize the importance of balance, a value I share. With regard to the environmental district, the plan would benefit by adding the perspective of biodiversity and wildlife ecology to balance out its emphasis on engineering and trail development.
The plan identifies and touts a 597-acre “Environmental District” as the second largest in the county (after Whitnall Park.) However, when Alderwoman Nancy Welch challenged the validity of that claim by pointing out that the acreage includes such non-park-like segments as Wisconsin Lutheran College’s private athletic field campus, the crowd, which had been respectfully quiet throughout the presentation, broke into applause. It felt to me like a release of pent-up tension as someone finally gave voice to collective doubt.
What had brought us to the meeting in such numbers and had stirred doubts despite the mayor’s reassurances? Distrust of government is not limited to national politics. The people of Wauwatosa and beyond remember the compromises that have led to the loss of precious natural land on the County Grounds. People remember with horror when tree-cutting machinery did destroy a beautiful stand of mature hardwoods around the Milwaukee County Parks administration building — and they still wonder why. People remember promises made to preserve the historic Eschweiler buildings. People are tired of fighting the now 20 years of compromises that have resulted relentlessly in loss of natural habitat.
Let’s consider this suggestion as a compromise: The city could drop plans for “Scenic Parkway,” rezone all 60 acres that currently are non-park county land to give them preservation status, build no new roads in those 60 acres, request that the county add them to County Grounds Park, and reconsider plans to develop other natural areas within the district (such as at the Research Park). I believe that such a promise, if kept, would help rebuild trust of City Hall enough that other, more laudable portions of the master plan — such as increased density, the circulator bus and high-rise development in infill areas — would be subject to less intense, more amenable scrutiny.
There are other initiatives in the master plan that will concern residents of Wauwatosa. In fact, people have expressed concern that the fuss about Sanctuary Woods might serve to screen larger issues. Why, for instance, when there has been a veritable building spree — in the Village, at the Burleigh triangle, and elsewhere —does Wauwatosa need so much new, dense, high-rise development? And at the expense of the most precious commodity a community can own, its natural land. Can we concede a little more density to save the last unprotected natural section of the County Grounds?
During the presentation, the assembled multitude was assured that the plan presented was a draft and likely to change after further public input. “It is my belief that at the end of this planning process, we will have a plan that balances environment preservation with economic growth opportunities, ” Ehley said. “A plan to protect beloved green space, as well as provide opportunities and guide decisions that foster economic development, job creation and added value.”
Let’s help her protect our beloved green space.
There will be a public open house on February 7, 5:30 -7:30 p.m., at Wauwatosa City Hall.
This time you will be able to speak.
To conclude, the plan itself testifies as to why so many concerned citizens showed up for Tuesday’s meeting:
“When an area’s natural resources are conserved and protected while allowing for human socialization and activity, the users’ appreciation serves as a far more protective force than any regulation. A community’s collective will to protect a forest, prairie or natural habitat is more powerful than a government-instituted zoning district. Rules can be changed and circumvented; the will of a united community is seldom negotiable.”