The Redevelopment Authority met Wednesday in the City Council chambers.
About 75 people attended the meeting.
About 75 people attended the meeting.
A proposed grocery store, gas station, restaurant and bank in West Racine remains in limbo after the Redevelopment Authority's meeting on Wednesday.
Project developer Tom Tousis had hoped to secure a 12-month option to buy the 1.5-acre site, located at West Boulevard and Washington Avenue, from the RDA, which owns the land. But the RDA only agreed Wednesday to direct city staff to negotiate with Tousis on an option to buy the land. Tousis will need to return to the RDA to get the option.
The option is a critical step because Tousis needs RDA support for his project to advance to the next round of city approvals. The City Council's Plan Commission and other committees cannot consider the $5 million proposal if Tousis does not have the right to purchase the property.
Wednesday's outcome was somewhat unexpected because Tousis and RDA officials both seemed surprised/confused by the project's status. Here's an explanation of what happened based on interviews and attending the meeting:
* Tousis submitted his project to the city on Sept. 11 and it was referred to the RDA for consideration.
* The RDA put the project on its October agenda as a public hearing with an initial recommendation to "receive and file" the proposal. Tousis was hoping to secure rights to buy the land so the project could advance to other city committees.
* On Tuesday (the day before the RDA meeting), the city notified Tousis that he needed to work with the RDA's real estate agent to establish terms of the land option, including price and length. This was news to Tousis, who didn't know the RDA wanted him to negotiate the option.
* On Wednesday, the RDA's meeting agenda changed the staff recommendation on Tousis' project from "receive and file" to "defer" to give Tousis time to negotiate the option.
* The RDA voted unanimously Wednesday to direct staff to negotiate the option with Tousis.
Following Wednesday's meeting, Zak Williams, a spokesman for Tousis, said the RDA's action was another "roadblock" to Tousis' efforts to build in West Racine. He noted the city had Tousis' project nearly a month before the RDA meeting but never said Tousis needed to negotiate an option before Wednesday's meeting.
Williams said city officials, including Mayor John Dickert and City Development Director Brian O'Connell, were stalling on Tousis' project.
"The city staff does not want this proposal to move forward," Williams said, adding: "The mayor has been very aware of what Brian O'Connell has been doing with this project, and he's done nothing about it."
Dickert, who sat in on the RDA meeting, said afterward that the RDA's decision was a common sense vote. Tousis only asked the RDA to review his project, and that's what the RDA did, Dickert said. If Tousis wanted an option on the land, Dickert said, he should have brought an option for the RDA to consider.
In other words, since there was no option, the RDA had nothing to vote on.
RDA Chairman John Crimmings said as much during the meeting. "The problem I have is we don't have an option to consider," he said. "It's very difficult to grant an option when we don't have an option."
The outcome suggested one of three things occurred:
1. The city sprung the option requirement on Tousis at the last minute, possibly to delay a vote.
2. Tousis made a mistake and failed to work on the option prior to Wednesday's meeting.
3. Everything went as it should, and this is just part of the approval process.
One person who seemingly can't be blamed for the delay is Alderman Jim Spangenberg, who is opposed to Tousis' plans to build a gas station but said he was "not against" giving Tousis the option.
Spangenberg did say he opposed a lengthy option (18 months) on the property, in part because a handful of other developers received options and then did nothing with the site. He also said he wouldn't vote for an option without seeing information about the deal and more about Tousis' background and project.
One positive for Tousis out of Wednesday's meeting was the RDA held its public hearing on his project, which is a step forward in the approval process. A majority of the people who spoke Wednesday night backed Tousis' 25,000-square-foot project.
Alderman Greg Helding and Elaine Sutton-Ekes, both city Plan Commission members, both spoke in favor of granting Tousis the option. Both said they looked forward to reviewing the project in detail at their meetings.
A sketch of the gas station canopy designed to look like a train depot Tom Tousis
intends to build in West Racine.
intends to build in West Racine.
Tousis himself spoke on the project Wednesday. He revealed a new canopy for the gas station that would be designed to resemble an old train station and would use motion sensors to light up at night only when customers were present. Tousis also said the project would reclaim stormwater on the project and use it for landscaping, would setup a neighborhood recycling center and may even compost leftover food to create a source for renewable energy.
Dick Hinsman, who owns a property adjacent to the vacant lot in the 3100 block of Washington Avenue, continued his strong opposition to the project. Hinsman spoke during the public comment period and said a gas station would bring too much traffic to the corner.
Robin Wilson, the owner of Wilson's Coffee and Tea in West Racine, said he supported the grocery store and restaurant, but said a gas station was "completely unacceptable."
A representative from the West Racine Business and Professional Association, said the organization met this week and supported Tousis' grocery store, restaurant and bank, but said the gas station did not fit with plans for West Racine. (Tousis attempted to attend the association's meeting Tuesday morning, but was asked to leave.)
The next step for the controversial project is unknown. Karen Sorenson, Tousis' Realtor on the project, said she would write-up an option on the land by Friday. She asked the RDA if they would consider a special meeting this month so Tousis wouldn't have to wait until November to appear again before the RDA. Crimmings was non-committal on the idea.
As a side note to the meeting, state Rep. Cory Mason didn't attend the meeting but did listen in through conference call. There was some disagreement over whether Mason could vote at the meeting. Assistant City Attorney Nicole Loop said City Attorney Rob Weber had cleared Mason to vote by phone if he participated in the meeting, which she said is consistent with state law. But during the actual meeting Crimmings said Mason wouldn't be allowed to vote.
Mason himself said Tuesday he was told he could vote by phone.
The issue proved irrelevant because no votes were close enough for Mason to make a difference, but could be worth watching at future meetings.