Designing downtown
Plan Commission urges developers to put their best facades forward

By CHRIS BUCHER - Freeman Staff

December 23, 2016

WAUKESHA — What’s fresh and contemporary isn’t always the best option, as some developers have found out through proposals submitted to the Plan Commission.

That became even more apparent at the commission’s Dec. 14 meeting when Milwaukee-based Ogden & Company, Inc., sought a conceptual review of its renderings and plans to construct a 122-unit, $16.3M apartment complex between St. Paul Avenue and the Fox River, north of downtown and across the street from Waukesha Fire Station No. 1, 130 W. St. Paul Ave.

All six members of the commission and some readers of The Freeman on the Sound Off page shared virtually the same opinion of the initial renderings: They don’t mesh well with downtown Waukesha. However, gauging opinion was the main reason Ogden looked to hear from the commission early on in the process, so it can alter its plans if needed. That process makes things easier for all parties involved, Waukesha Community Development Director Jennifer Andrews said.

“The developer had a design concept and we thought it would be useful to get some feedback from the Plan Commission very early in the process before the design was finalized,” Andrews said. “That early conversation is helpful to the developer to determine what the Plan Commission is specifically looking for from a development. To have that conversation, there needs to be a starting point with the design and that is what we had at the last Plan Commission meeting.”

The proposed materials used in Ogden’s conceptual design included a type of steel that gives a very rustic feel to the building. The design of the two buildings

features asymmetric, unique architecture not typically found in the downtown area. Some commissioners were hesitant about the design because it didn’t take full advantage of the nearby Fox River.

It’s a matter of thinking ahead and planning for the future, and not just today, Plan Commission member and architect R.G. Keller said.

“It’s about the longevity of the materials,” he said. “Everyone may think it looks cool today, but in five years how will they look? And that’s a liability for a developer. Sometimes they’re more interested in how cool it will look and not how it will perform.”

Fitting in with the city’s architecture is also something Keller recommends developers consider before finalizing a proposal.

“Everyone is trying to do the latest and greatest one-upmanship,” Keller said. “All you have to do is drive down to the old part of Waukesha and you will see (buildings) all sort of have the same character and they were done in a 10- to 15-year period.

“I’d like to see something that preserves the environment better; it doesn’t have to look like it’s something from the 1920s, but it has to have a little more character.”

Andrews said the city and commission aren’t reluctant to have drastically different designs from the architecture that currently sits in Waukesha.

“Each design should stand on its own and be representative of its time in history,” Andrews said. “That does not mean that different architectural styles can’t compliment each other, and that is really what the commission and the staff is looking for.”

Thriving residential community

With a vacancy rate of 5 percent or less in the city, Andrews added that the city has never seen a greater number of residential proposals in downtown.

This year alone, the Plan Commission has made approvals for an abundance of new housing in the downtown area. Thirty-two new apartment units were approved earlier this year as part of a plan to repurpose the historic courthouse property on the corner of East Main Street and East Avenue. Also, the commission approved 64 additional residential units on Main Street, west of Barstow, with many neighboring municipalities having the same growth and development.

One of the main reasons developers are flocking to the city is the desire for young professionals to move to the area.

“The downtown offers many amenities and activities that are desirable for people,” Andrews said. “There is also a desire to live in an urban, walkable environment. The residential proposals that are coming forward are a response to market demand.

“Downtown Waukesha is an exciting and unique place; people are responding by moving into downtown and being an active participant in the culture and activities downtown. Living downtown is a lifestyle choice.”