Rendering of the proposed development by Robert King along Emerson Street, at Oak and Maple avenues.Rendering by Fitzgerald Associates Architect

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A proposed redevelopment of the former Research Park at 1881 Oak Ave. and 1890 Maple Ave. along Emerson Street returned to City Council’s Planning and Development (P&D) Committee on  Nov. 26.

The amended plan replaces most of the proposed retail space with “amenities” and increases the number of rental units. The question faced by the Committee was whether the alterations to the plan required a return to the Plan Commission or whether, as has been Council’s recent history, the changed plan could stay at the P&D Committee and then go up to Council level.

Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, argued for returning the project to the Plan Commission. “My issue is, the first one of these PUDs [Planned Unit Developments] was in 2006 and the second in 2009,” she said.

The amended plan combines two aged plans, she said. She argued that the Plan Commission process, including additional public involvement, was valuable. To skip Plan Commission deliberations “short-changes the public,” she said.

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, agreed.

They were alone.

The City’s Corporation Counsel Grant Farrar, referencing a memorandum he and Assistant Counsel Ken Cox submitted earlier to the City, said that because the City Council is the final arbiter of any decision made by the Plan Commission, there is no need for this – or, by reference, any other – amended project to return to the Plan Commission.

The memo acknowledges, however, that “The proposed consolidation [of the two, PUDs, into one project] amounts to Major Adjustments to the development plan.” Despite the fact that “[t]he relevant portion of the Zoning Ordinance states that Plan Commission should review the proposed changes to the approved development plan,” the memo continued, “Council and its P&D Committee may, in the alternative, elect to retain jurisdiction over the proposal without returning it to Plan Commission first.”

Council may do so because “the proposed consolidation requires amendments to Council-adopted legislation that must inevitably return to City Council for approval or denial.”

Under this opinion, it appears that amended plans may never need to be returned to the Plan Commission, because at the end of the day Council always has the final say. This has been Council’s recent practice.

The plans for Focus Development’s project at near Ridge Avenue and Church Street and the Central Street project just east of Green Bay (the former Central Street theaters site), which some considered significantly altered both stayed at Council rather than returning to Plan Commission.

Those two projects were cited by the developer of the King project and its attorney, David L. Reifman of DLA Piper. Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, supported keeping the plan at Council in part because, she said, the King project was changed less than the Central Street and Focus projects.

The new plan’s primary change comes from the reduction of retail space from about 21,000 square feet to just over 4,000 square feet, a change necessary because of the elimination of a proposed grocery store. The developer also proposes a reduction from 541 spaces to 371. The number of rental units increases from 342 to 368.

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, whose Second Ward contains the project site, supported the measure and said that public involvement was important. He called for a public meeting, but emphasized that the meeting could take place at the P&D Committee level “rather than forcing  [the developer] to go through Plan Commission.”

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said  the project would receive no subsidy at all from the City, in response to a statement during the citizen comment period alleging subsidies, a point acknowledged by Attorney Reifman.  

The P&D Committee voted 3-2 to keep the proposal in committee level, a vote ratified at Council level 7-2. Ald. Wynne asked that the P&D Committee review the entire history of the project, including the original 2006 and 2009 Plan Commission Reports and Council minutes. She said that she had opposed both projects back then “because they violated the downtown plan.”

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, agreed that the P&D Committee should review the entire history, but voted in favor of keeping it at Committee.

The matter will return for a full review before the P&D Committee, probably in January. If approved, construction on phase one (1890 Maple Ave.) is expected to start in Spring 2013 for completion by the end of 2014. Phase two (1881 Oak Ave.) is expected to begin in mid 2014 for completion by the end of 2015. The project will generate an estimated $1.2 million in property taxes when completed.