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Wauwatosa leaders seek a balance between commerce and community

Jan. 16, 2013

The planned Meijer store at Burleigh Street and Mayfair Road, the Mayfair Collections project across the street from it, the development of Innovation Park, and the continuing recruitment of businesses to Research Park are commercial successes that any community would envy.

Put them together with Mayfair Mall, the Village, the North Avenue East Town district and the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center, and Wauwatosa is becoming an ever-more-powerful magnet for shopping, services, employment and money.

At the same time, elected officials have sometimes reacted with alarm at some of the consequences of this growth. Chiefly traffic.

Tussles with the state Department of Transportation over Zoo Interchange-related work, city-sponsored studies that would slow down the parade of commuters on North Avenue, and a possible reconfiguring of traffic flow in the Village are among plans to balance the neighborhoods and landscapes that make the city attractive with the commerce that makes it go.

Developing reality

"We are aware that there is this dynamic tension in the balance between the commercial and neighborhoods," said Mayor Kathy Ehley.

New development is adding to the stress on city streets, as Wauwatosa increasingly draws traffic from outside its city limits.

The city's population has dropped in the last 20 years, from 49,328 in 1990 to 46,629 in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. With the city largely built out, that number may not increase significantly. In fact, the number of people who live here is far, far fewer than the number of people who work, shop and seek services here.

The medical center alone employs more than 13,000 people, and the number of visits to the center annually is easily in the millions, according to several sources.

That's just one of many Tosa destinations, and the gap between residents and non-resident users of the city is only likely to grow as redevelopment of vacant sites such as the Meijer and Mayfair Collection sites, new construction on the County Grounds, development of Innovation Park, and other projects are pursued.

Political traffic jam

Council President Dennis McBride, a lifelong resident, says he remembers as a kid riding his bike down Burleigh Road - then just two lanes - to McDonald's at the corner of Mayfair Road. It's a route few experienced, helmeted adult bikers would choose today. McBride has been among the most vocal critics of DOT plans that reach into Tosa.

"(The) DOT over the years … has taken step after step after step to turn Mayfair Road into a freeway," McBride angrily told a group of state engineers at a committee meeting this fall, "and you're getting so close to it now you may as well put on- and off-ramps on this thing and just shoot all the cars down there."

Mayfair Road worrisome

Intersections at Wisconsin Avenue and Mayfair, Blue Mound Road and Mayfair, and a proposed widening of a stretch of Glendale Avenue have been some of the points of tension between DOT and council committees. In every case, DOT plans were for wider roads or intersections, and/or less pedestrian- and bike-friendly stretches, and alderman have pushed for downsizing and more accommodation for non-car traffic. Negotiations have resulted in sometimes uneasy settlements to these and other issues.

Ehley said it isn't that the DOT is pushing Wauwatosa into a future it's not ready for. "They're addressing the growth that is happening that started 20 years ago in this area, with the medical school and Children's Hospital and Froedtert and the Research Park - all of that growing," she said.

At the same time, said McBride, "We need to be in charge of our own destiny in Wauwatosa, and we need to work with agencies (like the) DOT, but not under the DOT."

Moving people regionally

"DOT's job is to move cars, and I think they are good at it," said Alderman Greg Walz-Chojnacki in an email. "But many in the council see the problem more in terms of moving people."

The transportation problem that leads to less-friendly roads demands a regional solution, a mass transit solution, said Walz-Chojnacki and Alderman Jeff Roznowski.

But a regional solution does not appear imminent.

"Unfortunately, the Regional Transit Authority was killed in the state Legislature, and no comprehensive regional transit plan or planning body now exists," said Walz-Chojnacki in an email.

Roznowski said, "I do not believe we have missed the boat (on mass transit), but we need to make transit a regular part of the development discussion."

Without cooperation from the state and/or neighboring communities, transit beyond the service of the Milwaukee County bus system appears unlikely.

Roznowski and other aldermen are strong proponents of bike and pedestrian travel - a "complete streets" approach that offers what Ehley called "multiple options." As they are rebuilt, Tosa streets are including bike lanes, and the city is pursuing a master plan that spells out more potential bike routes. Still, that may not be a solution for the masses.

Inside the city

The pressure on city streets is also felt on North Avenue, which is a major arterial through-route for thousands of commuters, and a neighborhood shopping area for thousands of residents. Its two identities are often in conflict.

The city has commissioned a study on how to implement a plan that would slow traffic on the street by adding parking, reducing left turns, adding stop signs, and introducing a bike lane.

"Those of us who live on the north and south of North Avenue, between 60th and 76th, we have a strong consensus that says we want to make that a very healthy commercial district, one that primarily serves the surrounding neighborhoods," Alderman Peter Donegan, who represents the south side of North in the East Town area.

The same kind of conflict exists in the Village, where another study is being undertaken that may result in changed traffic patterns.

Mayor Ehley said progress, and change, are inevitable. "We can't stop it, but we can manage it."

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