All sides speak on Drexel Town Square

Feb. 12, 2013

Wispark brought out the all the intellectual firepower they could muster to Monday's informational about the proposed Drexel Town Square. A voice of opposition via the Oak Creek Citizen's Action group was also present, handing out their grievances in the form of fliers at the door.

Wispark's big guns included Blair Williams of WiRED Properties, who have had their hand in the developing process of mixed use retail and residential buildings in Milwaukee, Shorewood and Whitefish Bay. Rick Barrett of Barrett Visionary, a national real estate investment and development company who is working on the proposed 30-story Moderne building in Milwaukee. Wispark President Jerry Franke was also present to answer questions. Representatives from Meijer, a big-box store much like Walmart mixed with Pick 'n Save, explained their decision to add a 190,000 square foot store to the eastern end of the proposed town square.

The Oak Creek Citizen's Action group, while not given center stage, let their opposition to the plans known. The group has existed since the 1980s and opposes Meijer.

Arguments against the Town Square

The foes of Drexel Town Square are upset with the site's proposed layout, what they see as a lack of uniqueness, a discord between Meijer's presence and the proposed downtown and the saturation of stores similar to Meijer in the surrounding area.

Mark Verhalen, president of the Citizen's Action Group, expressed his opposition to the proposed layout. He said, "You put a big box store there, the city hall and library will be in the back looking at Woodman's and the back of the new Meijer store. There won't be any exposure with the city hall being off on Howell. You'll have to use GPS to find it."

The group also cites that there are roughly 14 grocery stores in a five-mile radius of the area, with big-box stores like Target and Walmart nearby.

Another grievance they have is that Meijer doesn't bring uniqueness to the area, which they say was promised to them by city administrators at the beginning planning stages of Drexel Town Square.

While the group, comprised of 12-15 regular members and 40 attendees, opposes the Town Square in its current form, they don't have any solid plans for stopping it.

"We're going to look at all our options in the next couple of months and if there is something we can do, we'll do it, but if we can't we can't," Verhalen said. He added "We'll hope for the best and we'll go head to head with them if we get the chance to."

Arguments for Town Square

Wispark developers see the proposed town square as a hybrid urban-suburban space that will bring a downtown feel to Oak Creek with Meijer a central driver of foot traffic to the downtown areas.

Franke argued that for the Town Square project to move forward in a timely manner, a larger part of it would need to be absorbed by Meijer. He also argued that the land Meijer was filling, roughly 22 percent of the town square, could not be absorbed in any other way from a market perspective.

"Who said it (Meijer) has to be unique?" Franke said. He added, "What it has to be is what the market will support. If you take a look around the entire site, there's a lot of similar uses already. To think that all of a sudden now you're going to flip the switch and change things? No."

He also argued that Meijer was necessary to drive demand to build the rest of the site.

The current layout has Meijer dominating the eastern portion of the site, with the library and city hall on the southern middle portion, with town square and Main Street directly north. Retail stores including plans for sit-down restaurants flank the eastern edge of Meijer and apartment buildings sit on the western edge.

The layout has been changed multiple times since Meijer's addition to the site. While the current design is still preliminary, the developers believe they have zeroed in on a final plan.

Larry Witzling, who worked on preliminary designs for the town square, said "It gets stronger with each iteration. These aren't easy things to develop. It's a very difficult project and Drexel Town Square is really a hybrid trying to combine things economically, environmentally and from a community standpoint."

Proponents of the planned development agreed that an older municipality attempting to create a town square from scratch was unprecedented.

As far as uniqueness is concerned, Blair Williams of WiRED argued that the proposed main street mixed-use retail and residential area would be the unique driving factor for Oak Creek. What he envisions is a downtown area bristling with local stores including coffee shops, bars, yoga studios, sandwich shops and services like dry cleaning.

Williams added, "What I think makes it unique is the connection of a new civic center to a public square that's really dynamic and active with a farmer's market, ice skating, music and community gatherings and a brand new main street that's dedicating itself to that kind of coffee to cocktails culture where you get people in the morning, people staying at night, people living upstairs in these buildings."

Some of those coffee to cocktails places Williams plans on speaking with are Alterra coffee, Stone Creek coffee, Lowlands Group who owns Café Hollander and Scott Johnson, owner of the Palamino bar in Milwaukee.

Oak Creek Mayor Stephen Scaffidi opened the informational by saying, "We are very concerned that everything we do here makes sense to the city. My only request is that you look at this with an open mind."

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