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Plenty of skepticism over UWM proposal for County Grounds

April 21, 2010

A woman carrying a 3-foot tall papier-mâché milkweed plant, children holding up wildlife pictures and a letter written by the author of a book about butterflies were tools used by people during a public hearing Tuesday as they tried to convey their desire to prohibit or limit development on the County Grounds.

Those at the meeting urged the Wauwatosa Common Council to be cautious when considering the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's proposal to build an engineering and applied sciences campus and research park on 88 acres of land in the northeast corner of Highway 45 and Watertown Plank Road.

The project, dubbed Innovation Park, also calls for restoring the historic Eschweiler buildings and building more residential housing surrounding them.

Also up for discussion was rezoning 65 acres immediately to the east to a conservancy district.

Numerous issues raised

Lack of specific plans, the extent of proposed development and traffic congestion ranked as the most prevalent concerns voiced by those in attendance at the hearing, which drew more than 100 people.

Barb Agnew, president of the Friends of the Monarch Trail and Wauwatosa resident, asked the council to incorporate "six preservation points" into the final plan. The first of those points called for sticking with 850,000 square feet of development on the site, which would keep with the city-endorsed comprehensive plan for the area.

She said this requirement would "condense their footprint in the spirit of 21st century design, stewardship and habitat protection," she said.

Agnew also worried that the potential revenue associated with economic development were overshadowing the value of retaining the land in its natural state.

That land serves as home to a delicate ecosystem where monarch butterflies come to roost and full up on milkweed on their migration route. Birds, deer and plant species also live on the County Grounds, but as the area gets further developed - from massive stormwater detention basins to buildings - the wildlife is not thriving as it hasin the past, said Cheryl Neen from Milwaukee Riverkeeper, a local environmental group.

"(The grounds) have experienced a death by 1,000 cuts," she said.

Increased traffic noise and pollution could further harm the species, she added.

Because developers will not be able to undo any site alterations, Nenn asked that clearing or prepping occur until construction is eminent.

Some skeptical of project

Her suggestion came as many people - including a few UWM employees - expressed doubt that the university's foundation could find enough funding to bring the project to fruition, especially when its biggest proponent, Chancellor Carlos Santiago, is rumored to be looking for work elsewhere.

"There's a lot of doubt about UWM's potential to see this through," said Lane Hall, a Wauwatosa resident and UWM professor.

With "world-renowned brownfields" development experts at the university, Hall said he didn't understand why any of the many blighted areas in Milwaukee County weren't being considered as an alternative to digging up green space.

The sole person talking in favor of development was Historic Preservation Commission Chairwoman Kathy Ehley, who supported plans to preserve and fix up the Eschweiler buildings. Ehley also is executive director of the Village Business Improvement District.

Push for more conservation

As for the proposed conservancy district, several people said they wanted to see it extended further to include a 17-acre parcel that is being reserved for the state Department of Transportation when the Zoo Interchange undergoes reconstruction and north and south berms where the milkweed grows.

Conservancy does not mean it will remain "untouched habitat," Community Development Director Nancy Welch said. But it allows the fewest amounts of uses - ecological and educational studies, community gardens, for instance - and any uses will have to come before the city for a conditional-use permit.

Although many representatives of UWM and the architectural firm representing them were in attendance, none spoke at the hearing.

City officials will likely hear from them during next week's Community Development Committee meeting. At that point, the rezoning and preliminary design plans will be on the table and council members can set parameters for what they want to see developed or preserved, Welch said.

Next Step

WHAT: Wauwatosa's Community Development Committee will discuss proposed plans for the University of Milwaukee's Innovation Park at the County Grounds.

WHEN: 8 p.m. April 27

WHERE: City Hall, 7725 W. North Ave.

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