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Panel recommends County Grounds land sale to UWM

May 11, 2009

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's plans for a new engineering campus in Wauwatosa, which supporters say will help to create more tech-related jobs, took a big step forward Monday.

The County Board's Economic & Community Development Committee recommended on a 4-2 vote that Milwaukee County sell 72 acres to a UWM affiliate for $13.55 million. The proposal goes to the full board May 21 for its consideration. The land is on the Milwaukee County Grounds, east of U.S. Highway 45 and north of W. Watertown Plank Road.

UWM officials say the campus would draw more research funding for the engineering college, which would help create jobs throughout southeastern Wisconsin. The new buildings initially would house graduate programs from the College of Engineering & Applied Science, with undergraduate programs remaining at the main east side campus.

Other buildings would be constructed by companies developing research centers at the campus, as well as a possible hotel and retail outlets to serve people working at the new buildings, said Bruce Block, UWM Foundation chairman.

Most of the committee debate focused on whether the Wauwatosa site should be developed, or preserved mainly for green space. That mirrors a separate discussion over whether UWM should build its proposed School of Freshwater Sciences on 1.67 acres on downtown Milwaukee's lakefront.

Supporters said the Wauwatosa site was chosen mainly because it's close to health care institutions such as the Medical College of Wisconsin, where the engineering college is pursuing research partnerships. People who've interviewed for new faculty positions want lab space and joint appointments at the medical college, university officials say.

Opponents say downtown Milwaukee would be a better location for an engineering campus because it's near Marquette University, the Milwaukee School of Engineering and companies such as Johnson Controls Inc.

They also say it would be difficult for students to travel between Wauwatosa and UWM's main campus. Some suggested locations such as Tower Automotive Inc.'s former manufacturing complex, near W. Capitol Drive and N. 27th St.

"UWM has an urban mission. Wauwatosa is not an urban area," Gregory Bird told committee members.

University officials say travel between the two campuses would be minimal because of the split between undergraduate and graduate programs.

UWM officials also say they have plans for other new buildings in or near downtown, including an academic health center at the former Pabst brewery and the School of Freshwater Sciences.

Also, concerns were raised Monday about developing the Wauwatosa land because a portion of that site serves as a stopover for the annual monarch butterfly migration.

"Nature needs that land. We don't need to build there," said Erica Voss.

The proposal approved by the committee includes a provision that would protect the butterfly trail, supporters said. However, some opponents said they still have concerns about whether those protections are strong enough.

Committee members James "Luigi" Schmitt, Willie Johnson, Joseph Rice and Toni Clark voted to recommend approval for the land sale.

Schmitt said UWM's plans balance the needs for economic development with efforts to preserve both land and some historic buildings at the County Grounds.

Committee members Theodore Lipscomb and Peggy West voted against the proposed land sale. Lipscomb said UWM's development probably would be an economic success, "but at a cost" to the city of Milwaukee. West said she might support the proposal at next week's full board meeting if she decides the environmental protections are strong enough.

Of the 72 acres that would be sold to UWM, 13 acres would not be developed, Block said. An additional 17 acres along Highway 45 are being set aside for future highway improvements, with anything left over from that work eventually conveyed to UWM, he said.

A separate 56-acre tract is being kept by the county and is to be restored as a nature preserve.

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