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Delay by Mandel disturbing to some Wauwatosa aldermen

Apartment developer says more time needed

July 3, 2013

The Mandel Group, which is developing an apartment complex at Innovation Campus, has delayed a presentation on its proposal before the Plan Commission by a month, to Aug. 12, compressing the timeline for approval of the project.

Alderman Peter Donegan, among others, is not happy.

"Mandel is just screwing with the timetable," Donegan said.

The Mandel Group has said it will ask the city for $2.5 million in assistance, which the city would provide through a tax-incremental financing district. The complex relationships among entities involved in Innovation Campus have created certain deadlines. Donegan and other members of the Common Council said they are concerned that Mandel's delay will curtail debate on the city financing, possibly forcing them to approve the project without a full airing, which could be contentious.

At a Committee of the Whole meeting in May, Donegan and others expressed dissatisfaction with the process by which TIFs have been approved.

"I simply want this whole proposition to be debated very publicly, with plenty of time, so that we can consider alternatives," he said. "Don't let them put a gun to our heads. I want this debated robustly, soon."

Aiming at September

Donegan said he has not advocated for or against the approval of financing, but "council, who has the power to go into our taxpayers' pockets and grab money from them to fund this, to do this, we have not been involved in the conversation," with the exception of a few aldermen.

One of the issues that needs debate in Donegan's view is whether or not it is appropriate for the public, through the TIF, to preserve the Eschweiler buildings for use by a charter school operated by the Forest Exploration Center. The Wauwatosa School District has objected to the charter school in the strongest terms as a possible drain on its student body and state funding.

Mandel's delay pushes back committee meetings on the matter, and means that the Common Council won't consider approval until at least mid-September. Budget work absorbs much council and committee time beginning in the fall. The UWM Real Estate Foundation, which owns Innovation Campus, is counting on selling the residential property to Mandel for about $4 million, in time to make a payment in February to Milwaukee County, from which the foundation purchased the property. These might be factors that limit debate.

Others concerned

Donegan's concern about debate time is shared by others.

"I certainly think that we'd have a very complete hearing on the Eschweilers and Mandel's TIF request. Particularly as we proceed with development of the County Grounds, I think the city needs to better scrutinize the TIF requests as they're coming in," Alderman Joel Tilleson said.

Tilleson said the council does not want to be rushed, "and I trust that administration won't rush it. That's been repeatedly conveyed."

Mandel needs to understand that the council will take the time it needs whenever the request comes in, Tilleson said. At the same time, Mandel's suggestion that it would come to council Sept. 17 was somewhat worrisome, as it starts to bump up against the beginning of budget hearings in late September, he said.

"So, if we're having a contentious and complete discussion of the Eschweiler TIF request at the same time that we're beginning to have budget hearings, it could be an issue."

Alderman Bobby Pantuso said he was concerned about the timing.

"One of the great things about this council right now is that we are one of the most considerate councils that I have seen in my lifetime, and the way that we consider things is we like to discuss and then sit and then think about things," he said. "We really don't like to be rushed. I think that if you look a couple years past, there were a lot of things that were kind of shoved in our faces, and we basically were told we had to vote on it that night. That didn't play very well."

If Mandel genuinely needs the time to prepare, that's fine, he said. "The flip side of that is that they're going to need to respect the fact that once it's in front of us, we're going to need our time, too."

Adjustments for butterflies

"We've been concerned from the get-go that we don't want to rush this decision along," said Phillip Aiello of The Mandel Group. "Weve been in contact with 75 to 80 percent of the council members already to start to provide them information on the development," an effort that will continue.

The latest delay involved issues related to the butterfly habitat that abuts the apartment property. Advocates of the habitat had concerns about one of the buildings, and Mandel is studying adjustments.

"I wanted to kind of get that set in place so when we do discuss this with the council members we're not talking about possibilities and we're presenting to them what the final plan looks like," he said.

Alderman Craig Wilson said there's not much to be done about the project until the formal application is made.

"I don't necessarily disagree that it'd be nice to have a lot of time to work through issues, but I guess in my mind the applicant, especially sophisticated ones like we're dealing with in this project, they know the project, they also know that timing is what it is," he said.

Wilson said the council is always busy, and the budget process would not necessarily impact the Mandel debate.

Council President Dennis McBride said the TIF proposal is too important not to get a full hearing. He said a Committee of the Whole on the issue may be held this month.

"It's a very complicated issue, but people need to be kept informed along the way," McBride said.

It's a project with "a lot of moving parts."

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