Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Downer Ave. deal: the reek continues

The public record related to the Downer Ave. parking garage continues to grow, and so does the stench about the way the Department of City Development handled the whole deal.

The Historic Preservation Committee is meeting tomorrow to discuss the matter, and emails are flying among activists and preservationists. If these people trusted DCD to any degree before, they don't now. DCD broke faith with the public and is going to have to go a long way to fix it.

My heavens, what were the folks at DCD thinking? Who was pushing to get the deal done even if laws had to be trampled? And what is being done to assure that this kind high-handed sneakiness doesn't happen again?

DCD, having been slapped pretty hard by Circuit Judge Elsa Lamelas for breaking the law and misleading a Common Council committee about the parking garage plans, has now put quite a bit of background information about the matter online, including Lamelas' decision.

Unfortunately, DCD still is in the minimization mode. An "summary" of the disaster by DCD Deputy Commissioner Martha Brown says only that Lamelas "expressed concern that the subcommittee meetings held in May and June were not publicly noticed and not open to the public."

Hey, Lamelas compared the city's conduct to that of a "totalitarian state." There was a lot more than an open meetings violation that she was concerned about.

What did DCD do wrong? Well, for starters, the Downer Ave. parking garage was proposed for a historic district. Said the judge in her ruling:

Given these circumstances...the Wisconsin Statutes required good-faith negotiation between the city and the State Historic Preservation Officer. This did not take place. Not only did the city fail to notify the State Historical' Society, even after Mr. Chip Brown, the Third, wrote to the city, advising the city of its obligation under state law, the city ignored the letter.

The State Historical has no enforcement authority, the judge noted, adding: I am troubled and discouraged that the city simply ignored what is nevertheless its statutory obligation to protect historic districts, properties, and the public trust. Our state's largest city is where we should turn to for civic lessons in statutory compliance, not noncompliance.

Ouch. But that was only the beginning.

The garage plan got altered a bit, and the judge said the alterations were minor and neighbors did not have to be notified. Then she lit into DCD again:

But the representations made to the Zoning and Neighborhood Commission (actually a Common Council committee) regarding the Historic Preservation Subcommittee are disturbing. I have considered that public bodies most likely would not be shocked to discover that not all persons who come before them are truthful. I imagine that they, like judges, have discovered that some persons who come before them are less than truthful.

The problem here has to do with the fact that the information regarding the position of the Historic Preservation Subcommittee came from a city staff person whose word presumably the Zoning and Neighborhood Commission was entitled to rely on and did rely on. The apparent misinformation standing alone might not suffice to undermine the action of the Zoning and Neighborhood Commission. My concern is that it appears related to a desire to control or perhaps silence the Historic Preservation Subcommittee.

City staff trying to "control or perhaps silence" an HPC committee? This is monumentally serious stuff. The city needs knowledgeable people to volunteer to serve on its committees and commissions. Squashing their ideas isn't a good way to attract them.

The subcommittee was appointed to work with the developer on some details of the plans for the five-story parking garage at 2574 N. Downer Ave.

And yes, there is more from the judge. That little thing called the Open Meetings Law got in the way of DCD's desires. Lamelas again:

These were subcommittee meetings that were closed to the public for no apparent reason and which at first blush appear to be violations of the Open Meetings Law. Once again, that is not an issue before me; and, therefore, I make no final, reach no final conclusions. But my reading of the statute and my understanding of the record as it appears before me has revealed no apparent reason to justify the closing of those meetings; no subsection of the statute seems immediately apparent. While the city contended that the commissioners are not conversant with the requirements of the Open Meetings Law, it turned out that one of the commissioners had raised that very question with city staff and that the concern apparently went unanswered.

Ordinarily we expect the governmental entity in question to provide this sort of information, regarding the law, to lay people appointed to serve the community in commissions such as the historic/ the city's Historical Preservation Committee, and forgive me if I'm misstating the name of the committee. I think you know what I'm talking about. I learned that there was no response to the commissioner who raised the question. I also learned during the course of the hearing that the city attorney's office has an expert in the area. And yet the city permitted closed meetings to go forward....

And when the subcommittee did meet, city staff made sure the minutes read the way city staff wanted them to read -- one commissioner sought to make significant corrections, but staff didn't feel like it.

Not only did the city conduct these meetings in closed session, it then took it upon itself to record meetings incompletely. When one of the commissioners objected over the omission of certain material covered during one of these meetings and attempted to supplement the record, the request was ignored. City staff did not trouble itself to inform the commissioner that the record would not be supplemented. The explanation given for this conduct is that the subcommittee had been discussing matters outside of its jurisdiction. It is a matter so fundamental that I am amazed to have to reference it that the purpose of minutes is to record. If minutes were scrubbed by staff to include only those matters deemed appropriate by the writer, there would be no value to minutes at all.

Isn't that what they do in totalitarian states?

The judge summarized things nicely:

So, with respect to the subcommittee, the public was denied access at the time of the meetings, the record was manipulated, and the city sought to suppress the testimony of those who might have clarified just what transpired.

Other than that, it was great!

Then, apparently, the manipulations rolled on.


The city then sought to have the Zoning and Neighborhood Commission believe that the modifications to the DPD (Detailed Planned Development) were the work of the Historical Society Subcommittee, or at least that's one of the interpretations to be given to the transcript which I think is Exhibit 14. This course of conduct seems extraordinary, so extraordinary that it raises questions about the manner in which Milwaukee made the decisions at issue here. I am concerned that the Zoning and Neighborhood Commission was deprived of accurate information. Whether or not the subcommittee was acting outside of its jurisdiction, the fact is that it appears that the Zoning and Neighborhood Commission was misinformed regarding the commission's subcommittee, the Historic Preservation Subcommittee's position....

The judge concluded:

I want to close with another quote from Holmes, and it's from the same case that I cited earlier. It is this: "We are in danger of forgetting that a strong public desire to improve the public condition is not enough to warrant achieving the desire by a shorter cut than the constitutional way of paying for the change."

I understand that the city had a strong desire to develop Downer Avenue and that in its mind the development would improve the public condition. But it, the city, should bear in mind that its failure to negotiate with the state and to deprive -- and to provide the public with access to information discussed at meetings does seem to reflect an inclination to the shorter cut.

The city's shortcut slashed through public trust, shredding it pretty badly. Maybe Monday's meeting will show us if the agency is willing to start repairing what it so badly damaged in its scramble for a desired outcome.


Anonymous said...

What's even more interesting about all this is that it happened AFTER the Common Council had approved the DPD for Downer. So this isn't really a fast-tracking of a development; it had already been approved after a year and a half of contentious neighborhood and city meetings. This particular problem seems to be the result of one really angry neighbor (Peter Kovac) repeated calling the mayor and repeatedly receiving an audience(!), until the mayor apparently instructed DCD to do something to appease him.

The icing on the cake for the mayor catering to this neighbor is that only most (not all) of Kovac's demands for change in the project were met, so he went ahead and sued the city after all. If you look at the Nov. 6 webcast, you'll hear a lot of anger, particularly on the part of Alderman Murphy, about the bungled way the mayor went about this.

Agenda/minutes --

Webcast --

Gretchen Schuldt said...

Mr. or Ms. Anonymous is right about Murphy -- he was pretty honked about the Historic Preservation Commission changing a plan already approved by the Common Council and the mayor. For those who do check out the webcast, the discussion starts at about 34:55.

Anonymous said...

See also:

May 16, Public Works committee webcast, item 5, 27:35 mark. Nicholas Kovac speaks and is later ejected for repeat interruption of (the committee chair?) Ald. Bauman.

May 22, 2007 ZND meeting webcast, last item of meeting, very long, much resident testimony including both Kovacs.

At both of these meetings there is much neighbor testimony. Prior meetings the Kovacs and other residents were involved with are referenced by them and members of the committees. Yet at both of these committee meetings they and other residents claim all kinds of deceit and stealth fast-tracking, which is disputed in both meetings by committee members.

All that I can see taking place is the normal development process with what has become typical resident behavior in the 3rd district: angry, belligerent, economically backward, NIMBY responses to new development followed by allegations of corruption and deceit. This has been seen at the Humboldt Yards/Jewel-Osco site, the UWM riverside dorms, the Locust condominiums, and probably other development sites.

Residents typically get some concessions or, in some cases, refuse to settle for a half loaf and get nothing. If aldermen refuse to kow-tow to this behavior they are accused of all sort of villainy. Perhaps they are actually committed to sound urbanism and are willing to oppose some constituents on matters of principle.

At bottom what residents have been crusading to \"save\" in the 3rd district is:

-an old surface parking lot (Downer)

-old industrial brownfields (UWM dorm and Jewel-Osco site)

-city-owned riverside land along a major thoroughfare/bridgehead that was available for sale for decades (Locust condos)

It seems residents in this part of the city get dragged into these NIMBY fights every 2 years by the SAME people, and how it plays out on the neighborhood level is the following:

-screaming adults lunging at developers and politicians at community meetings

-defamatory and slanderous posters displayed by anonymous groups

-attack ads taken out in community papers

-lawsuits threatened and prosecuted

-personal attacks and allegations of corruption spread as rumors about private citizens and public employees alike

-neighborhood organizations riven with factions and divisive elections

-outside groups like CRG getting involved and inappropriate opposition *and* support for \"overlay districts\" as a means of maximizing or minimizing property values, which is not what zoning and overlays are for.

This history doesn\'t add up to an urban environment that commands regional respect, influence and models sound urbanism in opposition to sprawl and environmental chaos. It also doesn\'t add up to a district that functions and attracts or retains businesses and people. What it most resembles is the politics and attitude of Ald. Michael McGee Jr. in the 6th district.

Michael Horne said...

I'm with anonymous on this one. His or her chronology is correct. There is a palpable NIMBY component to this situation which must be taken into account.
But I look toward the future. Ideally, the garage will be torn down to accommodate the Downer Avenue Station of the InterMilwaukee Metro System and Subway Transit Company, Inc. Then, we'll see some development!

Anne said...

I think the host here is right to say this all reeks. How about the fact that they put that development out for an RFP but cancelled it when it produced the politically wrong answer? Then the City declared that prime location on Downer "blighted land" so that they could sell it on a "first come first serve" basis. Guess who showed up first and got served? The same developer who got the other five city owned parking lots in the third aldermanic district, sometimes for free, always on the condition that they replace all the public parking, which they never do. Some of the other developers that had competed in that RFP said in the Business Journal that they felt the process had been rigged and they were disgusted and would never participate in City of Milwaukee RFPs anymore. That is bad for all of us.

Marcus said...

You know what this reeks of?

NIMBYISM, Rich White People, and a Mayor up for reelection.

Anonymous said...

It's people outside of the third district who really have things in their lives to complain about.

No wonder other districts hate the third. We here probably look like a bunch of whiney ingrates.

Anonymous said...

speaking of people WAY outside the 3rd, what is THIS about with Orville Seymer:

"Nik Kovac, eyeing the open 3rd District alderman seat, held one of his many fundraisers at Wolski’s. B&D didn’t close the bar, but had a grand time at the event hosted by Wolski’s owners, brothers Dennis, Bernie and Michael Bondar. The trio will celebrate the family-run bar’s 100th anniversary next year. In the crowd were Kovac’s treasurer Dawn McCarthy; his dad, attorney Peter Kovac; Gene Pogorzelski, “mayor of Pulaski Street,” and landlord Orville Seymer. Marty Falk, now with the Capital Grille, celebrated her 40-plus birthday there with pals Kim Beale and Shannon Bustillos, MU fitness director, and other Wolski’s regulars."

Shepherd Express:

Bondars, Kovacs, Seymer--all are suing or have sued and will likely sue again--the city, the county... Maybe Seymer, field marshal for the CRG, will start suing Glenn Grothman for failing to get the point of Seymers donations to him--TABOR! It's our salvation! Or is it 6-sigma? Funny hats?

They have a new cure-all every year.

Gretchen Schuldt said...

I think the issue here is the city's behavior, not who sued or who the suers were later seen with. Is it OK for the city to violate the open meetings law and doctor minutes (for starters) in the name of a "good" project? Who decides that? Would the city be more wrong if some of the plaintiffs were later seen in the company of say, oh, George Clooney? Britney Spears? Arguing that some people do not deserve the protection of the law because of the company they keep is a very, very slippery and dangerous slope to start sledding down.

Anonymous said...

It's not "the City," it's specifically the DCD that looks like it acted wrongly. If they did so under pressure from these other groups and individuals, or under pressure from higher-ups influenced by these groups and individuals, that doesn't excuse them but it is part of the story.

Gretchen Schuldt said...

Fair enough.