January 28, 2009
West Racine residents rally against low-income housing development
The City Plan Commission voted Wednesday evening to put off a decision on a 55-unit affordable housing development in West Racine at Washington Avenue and West Boulevard. Here’s a blow-by-blow account of a contentious public hearing at the commission’s meeting:
Someone is parking in the “Reserved for Mayor” parking spot outside of City Hall. It’s curious, because we don’t have a mayor. It’s not even fill-in mayor David Maack’s car. Hmm …
David Maack calls Plan Commission to order. About 60 people are in the crowd. More are trickling in.
The commission votes to go into closed session to consult with legal counsel. They retreat to the mayor’s office to meet. The crowd is up to at least 80 people.
The commission returns and votes to table some sort of request involving the establishment of an outlet at 4700 Washington Ave. They just want to plug in a lamp! (Oh, not that kind of outlet.)
An ordinance involving historical guidelines is passed, but it needs more approvals. Alderman/Mayor candidate Greg Helding upsets PETA by saying; “There’s more kicks at the cat, so to speak, before it’s done.”
Malek Musaitef wants to open a daycare center at 1630 Douglas Avenue. Seems pretty straight forward, and the commission approves the permit. Oops, I typed too quickly. Commission member Elaine Sutton-Ekes amends the proposal – something about landscaping – but the commission still approves it unanimously.
The Commission rolls on with business while a standing-room only crowd waits for the public hearing, which was scheduled to begin at 4:30 p.m. Couldn’t the commission have gone into closed session after the public hearing?
Now they’re talking about a procedural change that affects few, if any, people. It passes.
Public hearing is underway … let’s get it on! Maack lays out the rules, and then tells the group the Commission will lose its quorum at 6:15 p.m. How’s that for public servants! (And, no, apparently they couldn’t put off that closed session.)
Quick overview of the proposal. It seems like a decent development, but a lot of people are opposed. We’re about to find out why.
More slides. It is a pleasant-looking development for the corner of Washington and West Boulevard. Three-story buildings with stores on the first floor and apartments above.
There are two more buildings between Grove Avenue and West Boulevard that are a little more imposing. Hardly offensive, though. Or aren’t they?
We’re looking at 66,646 square-feet on 27 percent of the available space. The development could be four times bigger under city ordinance.
That’s a problem. Ordinance only allows for 27 units above the first floor, and the developers want 55 units. It also requires 129 parking spots. First rule in fighting a development: challenge the parking.
Heather Hammond, from Landmark Development, the North Carolina company that hopes to the build the $7 million project, is up. She says people making between $28,000 and $43,000 will be able to live in the apartments, which include new appliances, balconies, pre-wired for cable, ceiling fans, A/C, etc. Rents range from $500 for a 1-bedroom to $700 for three-bedroom, which she says is a good price for hard-working people.
Hammond adds the neighborhood has a bunch of old houses, and it could use some new construction. Landmark is the group to do it, because it has an award-winning track record on property management.
In short, the company will take care of the property because it wants to make money. It’s also scaled back the development from 73 units to 55 units, but can’t go any smaller and come out ahead. They also can’t add more than 83 parking spaces, and they need approval quick because of a Feb. 16 deadline for state (WHEDA) tax credits.
“Our plan will bring life back into the block,” Hammond said, pointing out it’s now a gravel lot.
Brian O’Connell is up. He backs the project, saying it’s the culmination of four years of work on the part of the city’s Redevelopment Authority. He goes through the timeline of what it took to knock down old buildings to make way for new development on the site.
The crowd is near 100.
O’Connell is defending Landmark. He’s happy with their plan, and wants it passed.
Here comes the public comment portion of the public hearing. Maack reminds the standing-room crowd that the commission will lose quorum at 6:15 p.m. Commission member Judley Wyant isn’t in attendance tonight. I’m not sure who else has to leave.
First speaker comes out in favor of the proposal. He wants to confront rising crime in the area with new development. He says Landmark is a good manager who won’t allow the property to spin out of control.
Greg Thompson, of Bukacek Construction, supports the project. He points out it’s been a rough year on the construction industry. Bukacek has laid off employees, and their backlog is 50 to 75 percent below what it was last year. He points out Landmark is taking a $7 million risk on West Racine. The company will protect its investment.
The commission didn’t set a time limit on speakers. It’s hard to know if Maack forgot, or if there is no time limit on public hearings. With the 6:15 p.m. deadline looming, could we see a filibuster?
Maack asks the audience not to talk during the hearing.
Lawrence Gray, a West Racine resident, speaks in favor. “We’re not moving forward, we’re probably slipping backward a little bit,” Gray says about the neighborhood.
He adds the neighborhood can handle more rental units, and points out a condo building may be nice there, but it hasn’t happened. His one caution: don’t design long communal hallways like Jacato Drive. People don’t like those.
Dick Hinsman, the owner of Hinsman Realty, is talking. He says he invested $500,000 in West Racine years ago without help, a shot at the WHEDA-funded project. He says the project doesn’t fit West Racine’s two-story architecture, strains parking and doesn’t have space for children to play. “I’m totally opposed to this,” he says.
Hinsman then offered to sell his building to the city if the project is approved. “I’m very serious,” he said. “I didn’t invest a half-million dollars to see something like this happen to me.”
Audience cheers Hinsman.
Next speaker is opposed. He thinks it’s too cramped for the area. More applause. Maack asks the crowd not to clap because it takes into time, but then proceeds to take up a whole minute himself.
Next speaker is upset more people weren’t notified about the project. He’s also opposed.
No one claps.
Wayne Clingman, a local online activist/blogger/radio host, says the apartment can’t be managed and that it will spin out of control. Somehow he ties the development to Film Wisconsin (just a little tweak, Wayne).
A speaker passes.
Josh Johnson is for the project. He says Landmark has a good reputation and will do a good job. “If things don’t change, that crime everyone is talking about will creep into the neighborhood,” he said.
He added the development will contribute to the city’s tax base and notes there’s a park nearby.
A woman is speaking now. I think she’s opposed, but it’s not clear. “It has always taken a two-income family to live in West Racine,” she says.
OK, now she wants a park on the site. Or a pet cemetery. Or the city to knock down Rubberville and build the development there.
She’s the second person to bring up the lost Piggly Wiggly grocery store in West Racine.
Kristin Niemic, from RAMAC, is talking. She’s in favor, noting it hits with the city’s plans for the corridor.
A woman is talking now about how nice it is to walk around West Racine. She’s in favor of the project, because the neighborhood needs investment. “It’s important to move forward,” she says.
The guy who bought the other half of Dick Hinsman’s building is opposed. He says there are too many apartments on the site, and he’s concerned about the lack of green space.
A called speaker doesn’t show.
A Racine landlord who lives in Mount Pleasant is talking. But he’s opposed to the project. He says it’s not the appropriate use for the land. Worried about competition?
Yup. He says the WHEDA grant is subsidized housing that will compete with the market he’s trying to reach with his apartment.
A woman is upset word didn’t get out on the project. She collected 200 signatures opposed to the development in the freezing cold. Alderman Greg Helding jumps up to take the petition from her.
She’s the second speaker to mention Jacato Drive, and not in a good way.
She says the city should wait for a better development.
County Board supervisor Van Wangaard is up. He’s opposed, pointing out there’s a lot of apartments for rent in the area. He’d rather see a grocery store (Piggly Wiggly?) or a restaurant, going on record as supporting a liquor license for the area. He also says better notices need to be given for proposed developments.
25 minutes to the loss of quorum …
A guy says he owns two rental properties and can take 100 applications before he finds one acceptable tenant. He figures Landmark will take marginal renters to fill up the place, which could lead to problem behavior.
A firefighter is up now, he’s opposed and is concerned a fire truck won’t fit to save people from balconies. It’s likely city planners took that into account when reviewing the plan.
Next speaker is opposed. He says low-income housing in Rubberville causes problems, low-income residents don’t have car insurance, there’s no place for kids to play, it won’t raise his property value and it will increase litter. “Mixing have-nots with haves could be a problem,” he says with a straight face.
Another mention of Jacato Drive, and, again, not in a good way. This guy also uses the word hellhole, hookers and lipstick (and ribbon) on a pig. “I better quit here before I get too pissed off,” he says.
Speaker says he’s undecided, but wants to know if 55 units are necessary. He doesn’t think so. He’d rather see a restaurant and more commercial space.
The next speaker lives near the development. She sees Hinsman shoveling his walks in the morning, and she shovels sidewalks even though she doesn’t have to. She’s opposed for all the big reasons: parking, safety, property value.
Are we out of speakers? No, looks like one more … and he’s “totally opposed.” He says Landmark may be decent, but they’ll eventually sell the property to a less reputable management company. “If you don’t believe that, you still believe in the Easter Bunny,” he said. He’d rather see an Applebee’s there.
Names of people who submitted an opinion, but didn’t want to speak, are read into the record. Four more people are opposed … and two of them did want to speak. Sure enough, they’re opposed.
The public hearing is closed.
Alderman Terry McCarthy now gets a turn. He says the feedback he’s received is 50-50 on the project. He wants to know what happens if the apartments fill? Will the standards drop? And, are vouchers allowed?
A flurry of activity at the end here.
Hammond was called up to answer McCarthy’s questions. She says the housing does fall under Section 42 housing, which means vouchers from the government. The crowd mumbles disapproval.
Then she says rents won’t be lowered, but surprises Maack by saying the apartments will be made available to residents making between $23,000 and $42,000 per year. Maack said he believed the average would be around $42,000. Hammond says that’s always been the upper end of the scale.
The commission is close to losing quorum. Apparently it’s Helding and Maack who have to leave for personal reasons. They talk about deferring the decision, but O’Connell jumps in and says that could jeopardize the project because of a Feb. 16 deadline.
Helding isn’t impressed. “We didn’t schedule this thing to come before us two weeks before the deadline,” he says.
The commission starts discussion, but it’s clear they’re going to run out of time.
Sutton-Ekes starts discussion by saying the commission’s job is to review land use, not make judgments on the people who are moving into the apartments.
Member Brent Oglesby, who lives near the project, then jumps in and says he supports the proposal, but he has some questions about parking. He adds that he’s a real estate developer, which may sway him toward supporting the project.
The commission is now out of time. It votes unanimously to hold a special meeting on Monday, Feb. 2 at 4 p.m. to make a decision.
Just before things wrap up, Helding tells the crowd that the proposal is pretty much the only one that’s come before the city. While people want a restaurant or a grocery store, no developer wants to build a restaurant or a grocery store there.
“It isn’t this or a grocery store, or this or a restaurant,” he said. “It’s this until somebody else comes along with a different idea.”
That comment went over OK, but then Helding threw in this aside:
“We’re not turning away a grocery store. The reason the grocery store left is it didn’t get enough business.”
That set off the crowd, which broke out into open jeers. One man started screaming at Helding that the old Piggly Wiggly was one of the chain’s top producing stores. Maack started banging his gavel and ruled the man out of order.
Things calmed down, the commission adjourned and now they’ll take up the matter on Monday.