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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Wauwatosa Common Council Approves Development Within The Milwaukee County Grounds

Updated Wednesday at 11:51 a.m. CST:

After less than 15 minutes of discussion, the development proposal was approved by Wauwatosa's Common Council Tuesday with an 11 to 4 vote. The project must still be approved by the city's Design Review Board.

Original story:

The city of Wauwatosa, Milwaukee’s neighbor to the west, has seen tremendous growth and development in recent years. Perhaps no area has been more hotly debated than the one situated east of Interstate 41 and north of Watertown Plank Road, which contains coveted green and development space.

Tuesday evening Wauwatosa’s Common Council is slated to vote on a proposed mixed-use development in that quadrant.

Last week, Tom Irgens of Irgens Partners told Wauwatosa’s community affairs committee that his company is deeply invested in the city.

“Irgens has developed ten projects in the city of Wauwatosa since its inception in 1998. The total is just over 1.4 million square feet with a total investment of just over $235 million dollars,” he said.

In 2010, the UWM Real Estate Foundation purchased 89 acres within the Milwaukee County Grounds, envisioning a vibrant innovation hub would spring to life there. The university’s unattained dream became Irgens opportunity.

Tom Irgens said his company’s modest start, two office buildings — one six-story and one two-story — along with a green-roofed parking structure, is in keeping with a 2018 master plan Wauwatosa approved to guide development in this burgeoning area.

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Screenshot / Irgens Innovation Campus Presentation
"The initial construction will include Building A, Parking Deck A and associated site infrastructure. Building B construction is anticipated to commence once Building A is stabilized and there is appropriate market demand for a second office building to be financed and developed."

“The highlights really were the dense urban site plan that allows for land preservation elsewhere, the use of mix-use development, taller buildings to be situated along the freeway and Watertown Plank Road, and the use of parking structures above ground and underneath buildings to replace large surface parking lots,” said Irgens. “Our proposed development adheres to these guidelines, values and recommendations.”

Irgens called the project a win for Wauwatosa and said, “When the 25-acre parcel is fully developed, it will generate an additional $1.8 million in tax revenue."

READ: Wauwatosa Leaders Approve Zoning To Protect Sanctuary Woods After Years Of Debate

For some, the value of green space has outweighed the benefit of tax dollars the city might recoup. Barb Agnew guides me through an 11-acre space known for its monarch habitat during the butterfly’s mind-boggling migration. We stop beneath a stand of old-growth trees, most notably a sycamore.

“You can see pictures of it in a 1937 aerial photograph, and the monarchs use this circle of trees to this day,” says Agnew.

An apartment complex now rises just beyond the trees to the west. The smaller of the two Irgens' buildings is slated just to the south.

READ: Striking An Imperfect Balance: Development, The Eschweilers & Monarch Butterflies

“What is built and how it is built and what it is made of is going to impact this corridor, this flyway for birds, butterflies, anything going north and south in the spring and fall,” says Agnew.

We weave our way west around the apartment complex, the sound of the freeway growing ever louder.

Agnew and a corps of fellow volunteers nurture every bit of habitat they can, raising money and forging partnerships to do so, including with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and the state DOT.

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County Grounds Coalition
This 2017 map shows areas of the Milwaukee County Grounds (including Sanctuary Woods) that Agnew has worked to preserve from development. The new development being discussed would take shape in the UWM Innovation Campus within the Northeast Quadrant.

“In 2014 the Department of Transportation came through for the Watertown Plank Road interchange. And so to take advantage of that topography, [we have been] putting in native plants that will support the monarchs,” she explains.

Agnew hopes people who have come to understand the fragile habitat still bubbling through this ever-more-developed corridor will sit down with its newest neighbor.

"I would like the developer and the city to meet with the environmentalists. The green roof can be very meaningful, if we do it right. So there are things we can do. We can help mitigate how those buildings affect the environment,” she says.

Agnew’s wish list is longer — it includes not cutting down mature trees during construction and considering a four-story, rather than the proposed six-story, building.

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