Alderman Jim Spangenberg is fighting mad over a post card sent to West Racine residents last week in support of a proposed development at the corner of Washington Avenue and West Boulevard.
The post card shows a vacant lot in the 3100 block of Washington Avenue on one side and on the other side speaks in favor of Tom Tousis's proposed $5 million development, which includes a grocery store, restaurant, bank and gas station. The post card singles out Spangenberg as an opponent of the project and asks people to call him to voice their support.
Spangenberg provided RacinePost with a copy of the post card. Here's the front:
And the back:
Zak Williams, a spokesman for Tousis, said he hadn't seen the post card and said Tousis had nothing to do with it. He added Tousis did not pay for the post card and was unaware it existed until RacinePost called to inquire about it. The post card likely came from local unions, which are backing Tousis's project because he's agreed to use union labor to build the development.
Spangenberg called the post card "sleazy" and inaccurate. For starters, he said, the post card states Tousis wants to build a grocery store, restaurant and bank, but makes no mention of the gas station.
Spangenberg also contested the post card's claim that lot has been "an eyesore for nine years." Buildings in the 3100 block of Washington Avenue were demolished in 2006 to make way for new development. This is the third year the lot, which houses the West Racine Farmers Market, has been vacant.
"This is sleaze," Spangenberg said, adding that he's up for a fight if Tousis wants to challenge him over the development.
"They don't know who they're messing with," Spangenberg said.
The post card, and Spangenberg's response, is the latest in an increasingly tense fight over the vacant lot in West Racine. Tousis' proposal is controversial, in part, because it's largely what West Racine has been seeking for years. Tousis intends to build a grocery store with a produce section and butcher, a sit-down family restaurant named after his father, Gus Tousis, a long-time restaurateur in Racine, and a bank branch. The development would also preserve the West Racine Farmers Market.
But Tousis also wants to build a gas station on the site, which Spangenberg adamantly opposes. He said gas stations always cause problems in their surrounding neighborhoods, adding Tousis' gas station is simply a bad fit for West Racine.
Spangenberg rejected the argument that it's time to build on the vacant lot. He said Downtown Racine waited a number of years to replace the Venetian theater, but then landed the Johnson Bank building. (That said, Spangenberg estimated in 2006 that the loss of the Piggly Wiggly grocery store in West Racine cost nearby businesses 10-15 percent of their sales.)
A key meeting on the proposal is scheduled for Sept. 30. A small group West Racine business owners, and a few residents, met in recent months to discuss their hopes for the 3100 block of Washington Avenue, which is owned by the city's Redevelopment Authority. Organizers of the group said it was not called in response to Tousis's proposal. The group was actually forming back in March, before anyone had seen Tousis's plans.
But the group's recommendations do affect the proposal. The final draft of the proposal, which will be considered by the Redevelopment Authority at its Oct. 7 meeting, calls a gas station an "unacceptable/undesirable" use of the land. "Undesirable" was added to "unacceptable" in the final revision of the group's proposal, in part to soften the recommendation. In theory, adding "undesirable" gives the RDA the opportunity to consider Tousis's plan without immediately discarding it because it does include a gas station.
One person close to the process said the RDA could may adopt the West Racine recommendations and then grant Tousis an exception on the gas station based on the positive aspects of his projects, mainly the grocery store and restaurant. "I think that may be what happens," they said.
But support from the RDA is simply the first of several steps any development in West Racine would have to survive. Tousis also wants a "Class B" liquor license for the development, and needs approval from city committees and the City Council to proceed.
The Sept. 30 public meeting on the West Racine group's recommendations to the RDA will be held at 6 p.m. at Gethsamae Lutheran Church, 3319 Washington Ave. The church has offered to provide activities for the children for parents who would like to attend.