Zoning committee considers delaying vote on proposed pedestrian street designation for Jefferson Park, but honors voting custom


A City Council committee at its Oct. 28 meeting nearly deferred a vote on a “pedestrian street’ zoning designation for the Jefferson Park business district due to community opposition, but the proposal passed in accordance with a longstanding council custom.

Called “aldermanic prerogative,” it refers to the tradition in which on zoning and other local matters, council members take their direction from the alderman of whose ward the project would be built in and vote the same way that alderman does. That explains why the vast majority of motions passed by the council do so unanimously.

Several members of the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association and the Jefferson Park Chamber of Commerce testified against the proposal at the meeting of the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards. In addition, State Senator Iris Martinez (D-20) attended the meeting and urged the committee to defer the matter.

The proposal, which was introduced by Alderman John Arena (45th), would ban new curb cuts and drive-through facilities in portions of the Milwaukee-Lawrence business district and require new construction to be built along the sidewalk. The designation already exists at the Six Corners shopping district, and at the same meeting the committee approved the designation in a district in the 33rd Ward.

The association’s opposition to the designation centers around a section of the zoning code which allows a reduction in parking requirements for properties on a pedestrian street. The designation is designed in part to encourage more use of public transportation.

At issue is the future of several undeveloped lots, some of which are used as gravel parking lots, near Lawrence and Laramie avenues.

Association members have voiced concern that the pedestrian designation could be used to reduce parking requirements for the development of the vacant lots on Lawrence, possibly allowing for a denser project and creating more parking congestion.

Arena has set up a zoning advisory committee which has discussed a proposal to build a four-story building with 39 apartments and several storefronts in the 5200 block of West Lawrence Avenue, but no formal plans have been announced to the community. The committee, whose meetings are not open to the public, meets on an ad hoc basis.

Arena’s chief of staff Owen Brugh said in an interview that the advisory committee meets privately so that members, which include architects and an association official, can give “candid assessments” about projects before the alderman holds a community meeting.

“The community is a little concern about what the future plans are,” Martinez told the committee. “I have had many phone calls.”

Martinez said that while she does not necessarily oppose the designation, there is “uneasiness” in the community about how the designation could affect the business district and that it would be best to delay the vote. She added that while her legislative district does not include Jefferson Park, it does cover a portion of the 45th Ward’s south end and that her constituents shop in Jefferson Park.

The association has been at odds with city officials, including former alderman Patrick Levar, over the development of Lawrence since the early 2000s, and some members have complained about a lack of transparency. About 10 years ago, renderings of a proposal for Lawrence were quickly removed from a public hearing after residents were seen trying to count how many floors the building would be.

At the urging of the city Department of Planning and Development, a local developer, the Mega Group, was encouraged to buy buildings on Lawrence and then to demolish them in preparation for a seven-story retail-condominium project that was later revised to 10 stories. The project failed to materialize, and in 2006 the city ended up holding the deed to some of the lots after it had acquired the properties through eminent domain.

The city reportedly is looking to sell those lots to Mega, which owns the other vacant lots on Lawrence, for the construction of the 39-unit apartment building. The city also has received plans for a two-story photography museum for Lawrence.

At the hearing, Alderman Ray Suarez (31st) made a motion to defer a vote on the pedestrian proposal and told Arena that he would be “a bigger winner” if he went back to the community and addressed its concerns.

Committee chairman Danny Solis (25th) said that despite the committee’s concerns, the decision on proposal rests “ultimately” with Arena. Suarez then withdrew his motion after Arena objected to a delay, and several aldermen said that they would honor the council’s voting tradition and would not vote against Arena on a local issue in his ward.

Arena told the committee that Martinez had not previously expressed concerns to him and that residents voiced support for the proposal at a community meeting he held in September. He said that the designation would preserve an urban atmosphere and protect the community from unwanted development, such as a pharmacy drive-through that opened about 10 years ago at Milwaukee and Lawrence avenues.

“This is about guiding development for the community,” said Arena.

Brugh has said that concerns that the designation is intended to reduce parking requirements for an existing development plan for the vacant lots are unfounded. He said that any proposal being considered could be built under the existing zoning.

Residents Ron Ernst, Frank Suerth and Steve Gulyas testified against the pedestrian proposal. They were plaintiffs in an unsuccessful lawsuit to stop the drive-through.

Ernst, whose home is in the proposed pedestrian district, said that while the association does not object to all aspects of the designation, the risks are too great given the history of the community being kept in the dark about development plans for Lawrence. He said that other measures exist which can help preserve a pedestrian friendly environment.

Ernst said there were errors in the public notification process for the pedestrian proposal and that he plans to file a lawsuit against Arena and the city to stop the designation.

The zoning code requires signs to be posted on Lawrence and on Milwaukee notifying the public of the proposed designation, and those signs were posted several weeks late, Ernst said. The signs should have been maintained until the committee held a hearing on the matter, but none of the signs were up in recent weeks, he said.

Zoning Administrator Patricia Scudiero said that the department was responsible for posting the signs but that the city lacks the personnel to replace missing signs.

The designation would cover Milwaukee between Giddings Street on the south and Higgins Avenue on the north and Lawrence between Long Avenue on the west and Laramie Avenue on the east. Under the zoning code properties within 600 feet of a transit center are eligible for reductions in parking requirements, but that distance is extended to 1,200 feet along a pedestrian-designated street.

On any pedestrian street, no off-street parking is required for businesses with a floor area of 10,000 square feet or less. Parking relief for residential uses is available for sites on a pedestrian street that are located within 1,200 feet of a transit center.