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Meijer proposal meets a setback in Wauwatosa

Intense debate on landscaping gets plan sent back to committee

Oct. 3, 2012

The proposal for a Meijer store at Burleigh and Mayfair roads was referred back to committee by a divided Common Council on Tuesday night after an hourlong debate on landscaping and stormwater runoff, and a parallel discussion on whether the city's big box ordinance needs an overhaul.

The debate continued an intense discussion that had occurred in last week's Community Development Committee, a meeting that spent 2½ hours on Meijer and didn't end until almost midnight.

Judging by the assurances those who spoke, everybody on the council wants Meijer to move into Wauwatosa, but Meijer's plan for its parking lot isn't consistent with the city's ideals.

Greenery amid the blacktop

The plan allows for 7.49 percent of landscaping, including an island at its driver-through pharmacy, while the city's big box ordinance requires 10 percent landscaping.

A compromise was struck at the committee meeting, giving Meijer credit for 50 percent of the grassy area lining the site along Burleigh Road, pushing the landscaping level up above 22 percent. But the same aldermen who had suggested the compromise had misgivings just days later.

"I frankly think that we didn't thrash out all the issues that we might have thrashed out," said Alderman Dennis McBride, who said he recommended the compromise but immediately afterward felt a "sense of unease" in that decision. "I went home and got to sleep about 1 o'clock that night and I woke up at 4 in the morning wondering whether I had done the right thing, and I concluded that I probably had not."

He said his reaction was, "My God, we're on the verge of approving a 157,000-square-foot single-story building."

McBride said the big box ordinance had the 10 percent landscaping requirements for a reason: to minimize the impact of such a large development on the community. He noted that other developers - such as HSA, which planning to build the Mayfair Collection - was being held to detailed requirements that should be applied equally.

"Rules are rules, and if they're not followed, they're not rules any more," he said.

Aldermen Don Birschel, Joel Tilleson, Jason Wilke and Kathleen Causier spoke in support of taking a hard line on the ordinance.

"This is going to be the first major development for this corridor," said Tilleson, "and it's going to frankly be a role model for all the other businesses that are going to come along there, and they're going to look at the Meijer project and they're going to say Meijer … got away with this, and so should we. And a bunch of grass and couple trees growing there is just not good enough."

He called an amendment upholding the 10 percent landscaping requirement "a dealbreaker."

Changing the rules

Discussion migrated to the big box ordinance itself, and whether it should be changed, and whether it should be changed before or after the Meijer project was decided upon.

"We're looking at an individual development, we're trying to decide what we want for that individual development, what we want that individual development to represent for our overall picture of how the city should be developed, but unfortunately we're still doing it on a piecemeal basis," said Alderman Craig Wilson.

"But I think it all gets back to the root cause that we're facing as a council. … We try to interpret on the fly."

He spoke in favor of taking the time to take a look at the big picture.

Alderman Peter Donegan made the point that the problem was landscaping and storm water, not policy.

"I think we should take that seriously when we sent things back to committee - it sends a message to developers," said Donegan, who favored a vote on the approval, with an amendment requiring the 10 percent landscaping.

Alderman Brian Ewerdt, whose district includes the Meijer site, agreed that developers' view of working with the city could be damaged by subjecting them to a drawn-out process.

He said the site look like Baghdad.

"I'm so, so, so excited that there's something happening there," he said. "So I want to send a message to Meijer, 'Welcome, we're glad you're coming, we'll get there.' And I'm sad, too. I feel almost embarrassed listening to some of this tonight. No disrespect to my colleagues, I know they're being deliberative, but it's painful to listen to sometimes."

McBride said he was confident that Meijer wouldn't walk away if the project got hung up, but Ewerdt said there no guarantees.

Another round of talks

The council voted 9-7 in favor of referring the matter back to the Community Development Committee to take another look at the landscaping. The stormwater runoff issue is a matter that would be handled by the Public Works Department, said Development Director Paulette Enders.

Aldermen Gregory Walz-Chojnacki, Cheryl Berdan, Donegan, John Dubinski, Ewerdt, James Moldenhauer, and Jeffrey Roznowski voted against the referral.

"Their action was to send us back to committee on a couple specific questions and we'll answer the questions," said attorney Brian Randall, who represents Meijer and attended the meeting. "I think some of them we will not, given the preliminary plan development process, have the answer for them. Stormwater in particular. … The city engineer has to review our entire plan, and our plan is still in process." He said there was more to be said about landscaping.

Randall said not all of the discussion was specific to Meijer.

"Part of what we heard tonight was, I think, more of a policy debate on their overall review of a project like this."

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