Monday, January 5, 2015

What you may not know: Week of January 5

I hope everyone had a safe and happy holiday season, and the transition back to work today is going smoothly for all of you who had the chance to take a break during that time. The Appleton Common Council is back to work this week with our first scheduled council meeting of 2015, along with a few committees, boards and commissions that have been rescheduled after being postponed over the last couple of weeks.

City Plan Commission, Monday, 4 pm

The first of those rescheduled meetings will happen today when the City Plan Commission meets in special session to again consider a proposal to redevelop an abandoned industrial building in the Flats  (the former A-C Compressor building at 218 E South Island St) into residential space.

I discussed this item briefly before it came before the commission on November 24, noting that it's always a good thing when we're seeing interest in redeveloping unused spaces. At that time I also mentioned some related infrastructure challenges, however, and we're still seeing that. Here are some of my concerns:

  • First of all, the current use of much of the active property in this area is industrial, including the Neenah Paper facility adjacent to this space. That facility is active 24 hours daily and draws a significant amount of heavy truck traffic to South Island Street, which would be the only entrance and exit for this planned development. 
  • The way the existing building was constructed also creates some challenges, as it was built almost right up to the lot line on every side and redevelopment would require exceptions to our zoning code regarding setbacks. Most troubling for me is a two-foot setback from South Island Street on portions of the south side of the property. That's not even enough space to construct a full width sidewalk to keep pedestrians off the road.
  • That problem is exacerbated by limited available parking. Zoning code would require 114 parking spaces be made available to serve this development's 60 units, but space only allows 101. The assumption has been that some of this building's occupants will use transit or bike, but I'll note again that doing so will require them to walk or bike down a street with significant truck traffic and limited availability of sidewalks.
  • Because the building nearly butts up against the lot line on multiple sides, there's not much green space available here. Zoning code requires new development to be 35% green space, and this property would have just 18%.
  • As you might imagine given the lack of setbacks, green space and parking, this project's density on a per-unit level is nearly double what we would typically allow. Our zoning ordinance requires 3000 square feet per unit for multi-family housing, while this development would have just 1396, or less than half of that.
We have the authority to grant exceptions to our zoning code, but when we're being asked for this many exceptions I think we need to take a step back and ask ourselves if we should. While I recognize the benefits of redevelopment for the city, I think it only works if the resulting properties are safe and the residents living there will have an acceptable quality of life. I'm not convinced either of those baseline criteria are met here. There are space, noise and pedestrian safety concerns that make it very hard for me to approve this in good conscience.

The commission's decision will appear as a recommendation when this item appears before the full council on Wednesday. It will likely be overshadowed, however, by another long-awaited decision:

Exhibition Center

On Wednesday, for the third time, council will be asked to vote on a purchase agreement between the city and Outagamie County to purchase the property for a proposed Exhibition Center south of the Radisson Paper Valley. This item was held once to make minor modifications to the agreement and was held two weeks ago due to confusion regarding the posting of the updated agreement, but is likely to be acted upon this week.

The land purchase agreement is the first of several steps that would need to fall into place for this project to become a reality. The purchase would only take place if the city can reach an agreement with the hotel on a lease for the facility and neighboring communities agree to raise their respective room taxes to help pay for its construction. As such, a vote to approve on Wednesday isn't a guarantee that this project will proceed.

However, both this purchase agreement and the project as a whole are problematic for me. The purchase agreement calls for us to significantly overpay for this property as compared to its assessed value and make concessions to the county that will cost us parking revenue going forward. Furthermore, the fact that the city will eventually hold ownership over the completed facility leaves the taxpayers holding all of the risk should something go wrong. 

You can see agendas for all of this week's meetings and the full schedule at the city's Legistar page.

Keeping you informed on issues that may impact you around the city is one of my primary goals as an alderman. Making the council's activity as accessible as possible to as many people as are interested is part of my goal to make it easier for more people to get involved with issues that matter to them.

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