Tuesday, December 19, 2017

What you may not know: Emergency Council meeting scheduled for 12/19

My apologies for the delay in my weekly update this week. Usually when I skip a week it's because there's not much going on and I have little to share. This week the opposite is true: So much is going on and it's changing so rapidly that any information I post could be outdated by the time I publish it.

With that said, last night I learned that our special council meeting scheduled for Wednesday has been moved to tonight (Tuesday, December 19) and is now an emergency meeting to allow the city to take action on ten items related to pending developments on the city's "Bluff Site," the current home of Fox Banquets, and the Zuelke Building.

These discussions have been underway for some time and likely would have reached council in 2018 under normal circumstances, but unfortunately actions taken by the state and federal government have left us in a situation that is far from normal. In each of these cases processes have had to be accelerated to take action in advance of major changes to tax laws. In both cases, the city's contributions to the projects via Tax Increment Financing (TIF) could be taxable under the new federal tax laws. In the case of the Zuelke Building there are also concerns about the availability of Historic Preservation Tax Credits, whose funding is now in question under a new state budget.

In both cases, those changes could create major funding issues for these projects that would increase their costs at bare minimum, and at worst could impact their viability. As such, council will come together in special session tonight to attempt to get agreements hammered out while we still can under the old rules.

Bluff Site

Seven of the ten action items for tonight are related to the Bluff Site and are intended to facilitate development of a new $49.5 million corporate headquarters for U.S. Venture, Inc. Negotiations on this project have been underway for some time, but they're drawing to a close a little faster than anticipated in response to the factors listed above. The seven items up for consideration tonight include:

  • A development agreement with U.S. Venture for the project, outlining among other things the city's proposed contribution to the project, expected tax credits from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) and the expected final value of the new facility ($49.5 million).
  • The city's commitment to own a parking ramp under the new development.
  • Related to the previous item, a commitment to provide 1000 parking stalls for use by U.S. Venture.
  • Approval of the city acquiring the necessary property for the project.
  • Approval of the concept (but not final design) and construction of a parking structure under the building.
  • Modifications to Oneida Street near the development site.
  • Vacation of nearby streets as necessary for the development.
Zuelke Building

Last week in closed session the Community and Economic Development Committee learned of accelerated plans for possible renovations to the Zuelke Building, located at the corner of College Avenue and South Oneida Street. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places but has fallen into a bit of disrepair in recent years. Last week the Committee was briefed on a proposal that would renovate the building to include upper floor apartments, improved office spaces and the addition of some underground parking. The three items that need to be approved tonight to continue the project are:
  • A development agreement, once again outlining the expected city contribution, expected contributions via Historic Tax Credits and the expected final value of the improved facility (not less than $10 million). The facility is currently valued at slightly less than $2 million.
  • Financial reimbursement of a portion of the project expenses via Tax Increment Financing to an amount not to exceed $2,019,500.
  • An easement to allow access to the proposed underground parking through the corner of Houdini Plaza at the south side of the building.
Tax Increment Financing

Both of these proposed projects are located within the city's recently created Tax Increment Financing District #11, and the city's expenditures in and related to these projects would largely be funded using that system. Over the coming days and weeks some large numbers are likely to be thrown around but it's important to remember that expenditures funded by Tax Increment Financing do not result in increased property taxes. This is probably a good time for a recap on how TIF works:
  • The amount of property tax revenue going to the four taxing entities (the city, county, school district and FVTC) from properties within the district is frozen for the duration of the TIF financing period.
  • Money is borrowed to finance the TIF's expenditures, which may include infrastructure improvements, developer incentives, etc, with the goal of increasing property values within the district.
  • As the property values within the district increase, so does the amount of property tax revenue collected. Any revenue over the "frozen" amount listed above is the increment, and is used to pay down the borrowing.
  • Eventually the debts are repaid and the TIF district is closed. At that time, the taxing entities are again allowed to collect the full value of the property taxes.
I am frustrated by the speed with which these projects need to be approved and, as a result, the limited opportunities for council and community review. In the end, however, the timing issue is out of our hands and, barring something of major significance coming up tonight, I anticipate council will take action to approve these items and welcome these two projects and the opportunity they present to improve the economic status of our city.

You can see all of this week's meeting agendas 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. Good governance happens in the open, and I remain committed to raising awareness on the issues coming before us.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

What you may not know: Week of December 11

After a slow few weeks around and following the Thanksgiving holiday, the Appleton Common Council has a very busy committee week scheduled this week. Here are some of the highlights:

Parks and Recreation, Monday, 6:30 pm

Jones Park has been closed and largely inaccessible for some time now due to the ongoing construction work at the neighboring Fox Cities Exhibition Center. With that work wrapping up soon, the city will be in position to discuss and take steps to construct a newly renovated park that better suits its new surroundings and serves as a link between downtown Appleton and the Fox River.

On Monday the Parks and Recreation Committee will get their first look at what the future of Jones Park could look like as Zimmerman Architectural Studios will have a presentation of the renovation design. Work on this project is expected to start in the spring.

City Plan Commission, Tuesday, 4 pm

Another new subdivision plan for the 13th district is scheduled to come before the City Plan Commission on Tuesday afternoon. This time the specific property is located along Cherryvale Avenue, just south of the bridge across the creek. The plan calls for the property to be divided into 13 single-family lots and rezoned from its current R1A (and a small sliver of R2) to R1B.

The primary difference between R1A and R1B zoning is simply lot size and required setbacks from the road:

  • R1A zoning requires a minimum lot size of 8000 square feet, while R1B zoning requires 6000 square feet.
  • R1A zoning requires a minimum lot width of 70 feet, while R1B zoning requires 50 feet.
  • R1A allows for a maximum of 40% of the lot to be covered with buildings, while R1B allows 50%.
There is an additional wrinkle in this plan as the property being proposed for development was set aside for park land or green space in the original subdivision plat but was later made available for development as part of the settlement regarding litigation that happened in 2002. Because of that settlement this property remains privately owned and zoned for single-family homes.

Rezoning processes are intentionally slow to give lots of time for neighbor notification and input before a final decision is made. Based on past procedure, I suspect that a final council vote on this rezoning proposal and the related subdivision plat will not occur until sometime in January.

Board of Health, Wednesday, 8 am

For more than a month now the city council and several of its committees have been considering a proposed ordinance titled "Health in All Policies," and the Board of Health will be asked to once again make a recommendation on it at their Wednesday meeting. The Board previously voted to recommend it for approval but it was referred back to multiple committees at our council meeting on November 15.

Madeleine Behr of the Post Crescent covered this item last week and has a nice outline of the goals of the ordinance. The primary purpose of the ordinance is to raise awareness of how our policies and actions as a city impact the health of our community, including socioeconomic factors whose importance we are beginning to better understand.

The proposal has faced some opposition from my colleagues largely due to concerns over the necessity of making an ordinance to address these concerns. The item has already been recommended for denial by the city's Municipal Services and Community and Economic Development Committees.

Personally, I think this proposal gives us a great opportunity to reaffirm our concerns and refocus our efforts on a healthier community. I stand with the East Central Regional Planning Commission, ThedaCare and United Way Fox Cities in support of this item.

Appleton Redevelopment Authority, Wednesday, 10 am

The Appleton Redevelopment Authority is an extension of city government tasked with identifying and rehabilitating properties throughout the city which have some value in development but also some impediment keeping them from reaching that point. One example of such a property is the former Foremost Dairy Site along the Fox River, formerly a vacant industrial property that is now being redeveloped as a senior living facility following a good deal of work from the city to return the property to a buildable state.

On Wednesday the Authority will be asked to consider an offer to purchase the property located at 222 N. Oneida Street, located immediately north of the Transit Center and near the Appleton Public Library. The proposed offer to purchase would acquire the building for $250,000 with $75,000 in escrow being provided by the seller to help alleviate potential environmental concerns on the property.

The office building on this site is currently vacant, and city staff's memo on the purchase cites a desire to purchase the property to help prevent slum and blight. As part of the purchase process environmental studies have been conducted on the site and it is anticipated that a buyer (using part or all of the aforementioned escrow dollars in this case) will need to develop a remediation plan and excavate impacted soils up to five feet below the surface to remove environmental conditions.

The likely expense of taking on this remediation would make it very challenging for a developer to purchase and use this property unless some action is taken to get it back to a usable state. This is the kind of project the ARA is intended to handle, taking the necessary steps to get a valuable piece of property back on the tax rolls where it otherwise would not occur.

Safety & Licensing Committee, Wednesday, 5:30 pm

On Wednesday the Safety & Licensing Committee will again be asked to consider two items which we have held in the past:
  • A resolution calling for the city to change its current ordinances related to the consumption of alcohol on quadricycles, also known as "pedal pubs." Council voted to ban alcohol consumption on quadricycles in 2014 but the recent success of The Social Station downtown has caused us to call for a reevaluation of our position.
  • A resolution I originally introduced in October calling for a reevaluation of the city's trick or treating hours. Appleton allows for trick or treating from 4-8 pm on Halloween night, which is a longer window than most neighboring communities and generates a few complaints annually. The present policy has been in place for several years now, so I'm hoping we'll be able to use our experiences and concerns we have heard to have an interesting conversation on whether a change is warranted.
You can see all of this week's meeting agendas 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. Good governance happens in the open, and I remain committed to raising awareness on the issues coming before us.