Developments often not as surprising as perceived
Call it O’condo’mowoc, but the city’s development process is often long, winding

By Ryan Billingham - Enterprise Staff

Oct. 16, 2014

Pine Ridge Estates.
Charles Auer/Enterprise Staff

OCONOMOWOC - Condominiums, apartments and single-family unit subdivisions do not appear overnight; it often takes years for a plan to coalesce and months for the plan to travel through several committees - each tasked with a specialized mission - on its way to the Oconomowoc Common Council for approval.

For some, the recent development activity that has given rise to the nickname “O’condo’mowoc,” or at least the pace at which development seems to happen, is problematic.

The message to slow down has been delivered repeatedly recently to the city by concerned citizens, particularly in reference to the spike in downtown development. At the same time, many developers feel the process takes too long.

“(This conflict) happens so regularly, the only difference (in projects) is in the scale between marketplaces,” said Wisconsin Realtors Association President Mike Theo, who represents real estate brokers in the state. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a four-story or a 60-story building in Milwaukee, it’s regularly the same debate.”

The Oconomowoc School Apartments project provides an example of how the process works and can take longer than expected, then be approved swiftly, creating a feeling of a limited public process.

The Oconomowoc Middle School was sitting vacant in 2010 when a developer from Oregon, Wis., made an offer to buy the school and turn it into a 61-unit apartment complex, but the plan changed.

In 2012, the state awarded a different developer, Keystone Development LLC, Wisconsin Housing Economic Development Authority tax credits to build affordable housing, which allowed Keystone buying the building from the school district for just over $1 million.

Once the funding was secured there were several issues that had to be addressed. The community had to be reassured that the project was “affordable housing,” not low-income housing, to convince them the project would attract what Mayor Jim Daley called at the time “higher-level residents.”

It would take another year for the project to be completed. The city’s Plan Commission, Architectural Commission and the council had to approve aspects of the project throughout 2012. In 2013, the ribbon-cutting took place.

Though no two projects are alike and often require changes and amendments along the way, a set of steps and guidelines (and also fees) for the development process is in place in Oconomowoc.

The process starts with a meeting with the Planning Department, where a potential developer presents a design idea. Once the staff has determined the first step is completed, the plan can be submitted for a staff meeting. After the staff meeting, the developer must within six months submit plans. Those plans are reviewed by city staff and if they need to be changed the staff will ask for a resubmission. The fourth step is to submit the plan for a Planning Department review. If the plan passes the review, the next step is the Architectural Commission for review, then the Plan Commission review and, finally, the Common Council.

Despite these and other steps, developers like Jim Wahlen of Cornerstone Development, which is currently in the process of developing a condominium complex northeast of downtown, said Oconomowoc is an attractive place for a variety of reasons.

“It’s a vibrant town and city,” he said. “There is so much potential, the retail is great; there is easy access. The views will be stunning from all perspectives.”

A feel for the condo market

Theo, who admits his view is a statewide one, said the condo market is strong and that many communities are looking at density - going up rather than out.

“If you don’t want the higher-density apartment built here, but you also don’t want urban sprawl,” Theo said, “where are you going to put people?”

He said density is often controversial in an established urban area because single-family homeowners have a stake in the neighborhood and fear things like “conversion” to rental units after the condos are sold or remain unsold.

Theo said that is rare. Condo associations have certain rules built in and according to Theo, it would take a vote for someone to convert a unit into a rental and because that might hurt the other condo owners’ property values, it remains a rarity.

Maureen Stapleton, of Stapleton Realty and Appraisal in Oconomowoc, said the condo market is thriving, mostly because there are young professionals who see condo living as desirable.

She cited expansions in the health care industry, which brings tech jobs into Oconomowoc, as well as First Bank Financial Centre’s recent growth as indicators that a variety of housing is needed in the city.

“People who believe the condo market is a bad investment are just mistaken,” she said. “There is demand.”

Next week

Others are less convinced than Stapleton about the need or demand for condominiums, and a group of people in the city have made a vocal stand against one of the two condo projects in development, Fowler Lake Village. We’ll hear from some of them and explore their objections to the increased growth downtown.

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