February 2, 2009

West Racine thwarts low-income housing project

The developer of a proposed $7 million low-income housing project appeared at a key
meeting Monday by speaker phone. City staff pointed the above microphone at
the speaker to amplify the developer's voice. The commission rejected the proposal.

UPDATE, Feb. 3: With no debate, the City Council voted 14-0 to accept yesterday's Planning Commission's recommendation, formally killing what Alderman Greg Helding called "the infamous West Racine project." In the public comment section of the council meeting, five citizens spoke against the project, and one presented another 200 signatures on a petition opposing it.

Original post:

The Plan Commission, at the urging of a grassroots neighborhood movement, knocked out a proposed $7 million affordable housing development proposed for West Racine.

The commission voted unanimously Monday afternoon to deny the 55-unit apartment complex, which included commercial development.

The North Carolina-based developer did little to help its case at Monday’s meeting when it failed to send a representative to the meeting. An employee chimed in on a conference call, but dodged a poignant question claiming only another employee could answer it. Not exactly helping out concerns that you’ll be absentee landlords, folks.

The proposal moves ahead to the City Council, but is likely DOA. Chalk one up for participatory democracy. Dozens of opponents packed a public hearing last week to oppose the project. They turned in a petition with over 200 names on it objecting to the low-income apartments, and swayed a commission that appeared to be leaning in favor of the proposal.

Not that this is good news for the city. The vote puts developers and planners back to square one on a piece of (supposedly) prime real estate in one of the city’s most prosperous neighborhoods. It also means a loss of about $150,000 in property taxes, which could go to paying down the $2 million in debt needed to demolish buildings for redevelopment.

Here’s a recap of the meeting:

4:04 p.m.
City Council President David Maack calls the meeting to order. It’s his last Plan Commission meeting. He’ll hand over the gavel to Tom Friedel after Tuesday night’s City Council meeting. Maack reminds the crowd of about 30 there’s no comment during the meeting. Roll Call: Four members are here, but no Judley Wyant.

4:05 p.m.

Matt Sadowski, of the city planning department, is trying to get the developer on speaker phone … and there she is. It’s an odd sight. One of the City Council microphones is pointed down at a speaker to amplify the developer’s voice. I think the company knows this is a lost cause.

4:07 p.m.

Alderman Greg Helding asks for city staff’s recommendation. Sawdoski reads it off … staff recommends approval. So that sets up the showdown: the city’s development professionals vs. a riled up group of West Racine residents.

Aldermen Aron Wisneski, Sandy Weidner, Bob Anderson, Robert Mozol and Jim Spangenberg are in attendance. So is County Supervisor Van Wangaard.

4:11 p.m.

Helding moves to deny the project’s conditional-use permit (the commission is actually voting on giving the developer a permit to build on the land). Crickets. No one seconds the motion.

4:11 p.m.

Plan Commission member Brent Oglesby has some questions for the developer. Oglesby was for the proposal at the last meeting. (Wyant walks in.)

Oglesby asks the developer to prove they can’t build a smaller development and still make money. He points out they’re not putting in any of their own cash, because they’re using state tax credits to fund the project.

The developer, Heather Hammond, hems and haws about the numbers and then says she wishes “Jim” was available, because he could explain it. But Jim’s not here, and the question goes unanswered.

Oglesby then wonders if the developer actually has the money they say they have. Here’s the deal: the state tax credits this year are worth a lot less than tax credits from previous years. Why? Because everyone is losing so much money there’s no need to invest in credits that are essentially a tax write-off. Essentially, real losses mean there’s no need for fake losses.

The developer says they have a national network of investors who will cover the project’s cost. Oglesby openly shakes his head in disbelief, which is funny because the developer can’t see him.

4:15 p.m.

Helding again moves to deny the request. He wants to say why, but he needs a second. Oglesby seconds, recluctantly.

Helding says the development is too dense and there’s not enough parking. He says parking is an issue, because West Racine may fill up one day and need a lot of parking. (It’ll be interesting to see how important parking is if a 55-unit condo or senior housing development is proposed for the same site.)

Helding adds there’s already too much rental housing in the city, and points out that residents seem pretty strongly opposed to this.

“We have these public hearings for a reason … they can’t just be symbolic,” he says.

4:17 p.m.

Commission member Elaine Ekes-Sutton is worried the development is too dense. She says the idea is good, there’s just too many apartments. She’ll vote no.

4:18 p.m.

Oglesby says he’ll vote no. That’s a change from last week. He encourages the developer to resubmit a smaller plan, saying the state may give out two or three rounds of WHEDA tax credits this year. “I would not take this as a death shot,” he said.

4:19 p.m.

Wyant asks: Is this the best the city can do, or will something better come along? He thinks something better will come along.

4:20 p.m.

It’s unanimous. The commission votes against the conditional-use permit. The City Council could overturn the commission’s decision Tuesday night, but it’s probably won’t. The project may not get a single vote.

4:21 p.m.

That’s it. We’re adjourned. You have to wonder if this project fares better if Mayor Becker was still around. I suspect he backed this project and wanted to get things moving in West Racine. After all, a vacant lot with $2+ million in debt isn’t exactly a help to the city budget. (It’s also worth noting high-quality low-income housing is needed in the city. There are thousands of hard-working families in the city who make between $23,000 and $43,000 a year who could use a decent place to raise children or just come home to.)

But Becker is gone, no one was willing to standup for the project, and now it’s kaput.


  1. Way to go West Racine!

  2. The mistake made with this TIF was starting the clock ticking by tearing down buildings on the taxpayer's dime BEFORE appropriate development was knocking on the door.

  3. Thanks to Jen for all of her efforts! Thanks RP for such prompt coverage!

  4. Lots of heroes stepped up to stop West Racine from being wrecked by the City of Racine. I too would like to say thanks!
    We have the power to take back the City of Racine from the Becker Cronies who would like to be Mayor.
    Just say NO!
    WE the People run Racine!
    Helding-Maack = Becker just say no!

  5. Green Racine2/02/2009 8:28 PM

    What to do with that block.

    Turn it into Green Space for a park and Farmer's Market

    As lat year a farmers Market will bring folks to West Racine to not only shop at the Market for great quality food but they will stop at Wilson's walk around to see the other great stores in the area.
    The West Racine Neighborhood will get stronger as neighbor gets to know neighbor bringing forth an area where others will want to live in.
    Homes will be bought and maintained (like the way they are now) Folks with young kids will want to move to West Racine so they too can share in the joy that is and can continue to be West Racine''Long live West Racine!

  6. Green Racine - nice idea, but how to pay for the TIF? A farmer's market won't do it.

  7. Green Racine2/03/2009 7:12 AM

    The same way we paid for the one on state st. We eat it. Just like we are going to eat the one around the Uptown Art Project.
    We could sue RCEDC for mismanaging them both. Just look we have a young lady from RCEDC getting paid$$$ to get things going (mostly with no bid contracts for poor web pages) with no results lets at least end that contract.

    My guess is that with the Farmer's Market helping to raise property values/taxes in time the market would pay for it's self.
    Also there a grants that would help pay for the improvments needed and outreach for programs that could be ran out of the Market. Healthy Eating to Master Gardening

    God I am good. Think I will look into this idea.

  8. "It’s also worth noting high-quality low-income housing is needed in the city. There are thousands of hard-working families in the city who make between $23,000 and $43,000 a year who could use a decent place to raise children or just come home to."

    Boo freaking hoo. What about Mitchell Wagon Lofts or State and Main? Apparently, they cater to a mix-income crowd and don't appear to be doing well.

  9. ...proposed $7 million affordable housing development...

    It sure beats an unaffordable housing development.
    Is this pc for low-income?

  10. Racine, Banana city.

    Build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything...

    Yeah, we don't need to revenue.

  11. Real; Let's build this next to you.

    I myself am tired of Racine = Slums
    I also do not believe that RCEDC bothered to look for a grocery store and boy The City Development team did not like that fact that we knew about CVS being in talks to build one in West Racine.

  12. Colt -

    Big scoop. EVERYONE knew about the potential CVS deal.

  13. i been out of town a lot. what cvs deal?

    just have to wonder where these thousands are currently living now. certainly not in the streets.

  14. I did not know sorry! In fact many in the room did know!!

  15. Uptown Downtown2/03/2009 10:33 PM

    Wow CVS? That'd be kewl. And using or reusing an existing property. Glad to see that the people stood up for the West Racine area. And Unanimously it was defeated!! Don't build anything now, wait for the right building and project. Sorry folks wont be a Grocery Store, not enough room/ Parking.

    So how else can we strengthen the character of West Racine..How about improving Uptown?? No I don't mean expanding the "Arts" district...I mean Eliminate the Entire North side of the Street. Make a smooth 2-3 lane Blvd. With a Bike path Lane along the North side and walkway. Along the North. A Blvd. with an attractive lighting and Brickwork or even a small sitting area in the front of the Southern buildings. Angled Parking in front and the existing parking in the rear. The facade investments could be used to continue to improve the Fronts of the remaining Southern Buildings. The Approach heading into SC Johnson HQ, would be more pleasant. The Drive into the Downtown area will be smoother and much less "Ghetto" appearing, and the plan can be continued into the Downtown areas as Uptown and Midtown go thru more changes over the next few years. (Actually a nice Bridge over the junction would be dreaming just a bit too much, but I'd like that too. Also the Drive from Downtown Westward would also be much more attractive, the Blvd theme could be continued along the Park view by widening into the Park just another 20 feet or so, and continue the Bike path accordingly; and then the approach into West Racine.

    Now we could leave it the way it is, or change the current Ave into a one way St heading east, and make Linderman(?) a one way going East. or use the Alley and parking area behind West Racine shops as the western flow.
    Wanna make Racine better, make it easier to get into and out of. AND NO MORE LOW INCOME HOUSING!!

  16. Great ideas Uptown Downtown. Hopefully the opposition will send our city developers out looking for potential investors/developers. For the comments stating that those of us who opposed the development to be responsible for paying off the city's debt, I think most of us feel we do when our property taxes keep going up every year (this year mine went up over $300). Because this created so much controversy and neighbor involvement, I'd like to see more suggestions not only from the immediate surrounding residents, but the entire community. Some good ideas I've heard were an elderly living complex. Not 55 units, but maybe half with some retail, or restaurant, or even fitness club. What better place for the local elderly to be able to retire to when the house they may have been in for decades becomes too much? I would just like to thank my neighbors for comming together on this and am greatful to have had the opprotunity to meet so many interesting people. Stay involved and don't let them try and sneak in some other project not suitable for the community!