On Tuesday, the Common Council will consider rezoning the northwest corner of Highland and Port Washington Roads for a 29,500 square foot medical office building on about 3.9 acres. I voted against this proposal at the Planning Commission. I do not support this rezoning as proposed. I write to make clear why.
I welcome medical office buildings within our commercial areas. If Ascension had proposed this building south of Highland Road or in the Town Center, I would be a proponent. I hope that, if the proposal is rejected, Ascension will move the proposed clinic to one of the vacant parcels that is designed to accomodate it.
My position is consistent with statements I made when running for office, at the Council consultation, at the subcommittee, at Planning Commission, to neighbors and to the developer. I do not like unpredictability. I do not think it is fair to developers, users or the public. Unpredictability, more than almost anything else, hurts a community’s reputation. We should be clear and consistent.
It is true that the Planning Commission Policy Subcommittee, which I chair, supports Neighborhood Commercial for this corner. Although I would personally be happy if the entire parcel remained residential, I have been supportive of Neighborhood Commercial for a small development on the corner. It would shield the residential development much as the Highland House does. My support for some neighborhood use on that corner dates back to discussions almost a decade ago.
According to Sec. 58-293 (the existing Neighborhood Commercial ordinance), Neighborhood Commercial is supposed to be “office, retail and services designed to serve immediate residential neighborhoods.” Similarly, the proposed Neighborhood Commercial zoning district for North Port Washington Road, as drafted by staff, states that the district is to provide “office and services … providing neighborhood scale services for nearby residential neighborhoods.”
The proposed medical office building is truly unnecessary for the immediate or nearby residential neighborhoods. It is being built to draw people from all of Mequon and nearby communities. That alone, however, would not necessarily lose my support.
My support for rezoning this corner to Neighborhood Commercial has, however, always been conditioned on the size of the parcel being comparable to the size of the commercial properties across the street. One of those parcels is 2.27 acres. The other is 3.01 acres. The proposal before the Council is almost another acre larger. If it was the same size as the Highland House property, there would business property across from business property; instead, it will also be across from residential properties. Nevertheless, even that might not necessarily lose my support.
The size of the building, however, is a bigger issue. The existing Neighborhood Commercial zoning district limits uses by right to 20,000 square feet. The proposed building is basically 50% larger. It would put another big building in a residential neighborhood. Although exceeding 20,000 square feet is possible with a PUD rezoning, it is not allowed as a matter of right for a reason. A building larger than 20,000 square feet should be the exception rather than the rule. This will be a very large building. A larger building might be appropriate if it is absolutely necessary for a particular use and the use meets some particular objective. Although the proposed building looks very nice, and I would support it and its size in an area designed for general office use, I cannot imagine a compelling city objective that this proposal fulfills in this location. If it deserves the larger size, what proposal would not? The size clearly indicates that the building is designed to draw medical professionals and customers from well beyond “nearby immediate residential neighborhoods.”
I pledged when I ran for this position to do what I can to invigorate Mequon’s existing commercial areas. Adding large scale commercial uses to other areas does not do that. There is a limit to how much commercial development a city with our population can absorb, and Mequon has limited population growth. This building will draw medical tenants away from our existing medical office spaces in areas designed for offices. Adding large scale commercial in one area most likely reduces the demand in others (in addition to changing the nature of this neighborhood).
Then there is the rest of the parcel. I have been very clear that I will not support rezoning the rest to anything other than residential. It is the last significant sewered single-family site on the east side of Mequon. It is the best single-family parcel left in the city. If the developer wanted to gain my support, it would have had the PUD apply to the whole parcel and made it clear that the rest will be single-family. They did not do that, and they have done nothing else to indicate that they plan to have the rest remain single-family. I can only assume that, after this rezoning, they will return with some or all of the high intensity uses they previously showed the Council. They might even use this clinic as an argument that the rest of the parcel should not be single-family.
I note that, under Mequon’s ordinances, the purpose of PUD zoning is to create a development that has “coordinated area site planning, diversified location of structures and/or mixing of compatible uses.” Admittedly, a single building is not precluded, but using it for a single building when most of the parcel is not covered is questionable.
I likely would have supported a 15,000 to 20,000 square foot building on this site with a concurrent commitment to develop the rest as single-family. I would have compromised on lot size and use. I might even have compromised on building size if, for example, it was two-stories and designed to be vertically and architecturally unobtrusive. However, with the lot size and building size, and no approved plan or commitment for the rest of the parcel, I cannot support this proposal. There is too much compromise.