Hot Meeting About Potential UWM Dorm Site
The Maryland Avenue School played host to a tension-filled meeting to discuss one of three proposals for the location of the new UWM dorm. The proposal on the table was the nearby Prospect Mall parking lot location proposed by Boulder Venture.
The meeting began with Alderman Nik Kovac introducing those in the audience who would take questions. They included Robert Schmidt from Boulder Venture and their project consultant Doug Weas, David Gilbert from the UWM Real Estate Foundation, UWM Director of University Housing Scott Peak, Vice Chancellor for University Relations and Communications Tom Luljak and UWM Chief of Police Pamela Hodermann.
Following the introductions by Kovac, Robert Schmidt gave a presentation with Doug Weas. Their presentation hit all the high-level facts of the building and Doug drilled into so more low-level aspects including what aspects of the building would qualify it for LEED-certification. As Robert Schmidt listed off many nearby amenities for freshman (the proposed residents) the crowd began to moan and groan “bars”. Other details of the development included in the presentation included that it was to be 8 to 10 stories tall with 40 to 45 students per Resident Assistant (an average amount) on each floor. The first floor was to be entirely retail with 37 parking spots (some of which would be surface spots). Students would enter from Ivanhoe Place and go to the second floor where all of the standard dorm facilities would be. There would be 70 keycard protected parking spots for students separate from the parking for the retail facilities.
As a current Milwaukee college student at MSOE, an almost 22-year-old, and a friend to well over 100 UWM students, I would like to address some the fear about students and bars. Freshman aren’t 21, and therefore can’t legally enter bars. If they are entering bars without fake IDs, then you have a problem with a bar (and I would safely say these bars don’t really exist on the East Side, my under-21 friends continue to search though). This raises the fake ID question, to which I will boldly assert that no more than 5% of college students in Milwaukee have a fake ID and use it. That percentage is even lower for freshman, the proposed residents of the new UWM dorm. Many claim to have one (from an older sibling or whomever) but never use it, presumably out of fear that it wouldn’t actually work because it doesn’t actually look like them. The point of my detailing this is that under-21 students don’t really go to the bars in Milwaukee, especially during their first year in college (they don’t have friends that can go yet, therefore have less interest in going). The bars could be in the bottom of the building, the students still wouldn’t be going to them.
The development would be located on the former Prospect Mall parking lot and including the land that currently that the Qdoba is currently on. The gas station (not owned by Boulder Venture) would be left unchanged. Prospect Mall, currently empty, would have far greater support for redevelopment with the dorm located across the street. Schmidt indicated that locating the dorm across the street, would help Boulder reach their vision for Prospect Mall. The vision includes removing the current false facade so that the original brick is visible (similar to the nearby Alterra) and adding two to three stories on the top of the mall. The old spaces would presumably be filled with retail, while the upper levels could be offices. Questioning later in the meeting revealed that the mall lost all but one of its tenants after Marcus closed their cinema (which Schmidt said they attempted to negotiate with to stay to no avail). The final remaining tenant was relocated because the cost to keep the entire mall open for one tenant was too high.
Now what college students do like to do when they’re bored and the opportunity presents itself is go to keg parties. As a number of the UWM representatives indicated the keg parties got out of hand (i.e. got busted by the police) when they were held by freshman and students who had never lived in the dorms. Tom Luljak had information from enrollment figures indicating that with the opening of RiverView dorms, 300 less students lived off-campus. This means less stress on the neighborhood and less opportunities for out of control keg parties. Another new dorm is only going to further improve things for neighbors, by making it possible for more owner-occupancy or family rentals with more students living in campus housing. At the end of the day what you end up with is fewer big keg parties. Small gatherings of students where underage drinking happens will still exist, but I don’t think any complaints originate from neighbors when students drink moderately inside without making noise or littering the sidewalk. If mandatory freshman on-campus housing happens (which is what UWM is working towards), crazy keg parties are going to be very few and far between.
Back to the presentation.
Immediately following the presentation, the first question was a statement from a nearby neighbor asking everyone in the audience to join together and oppose the project. This included the belief that UWM had broken a promise with the neighborhood never to have underclassmen live in dorms in this neighborhood. Tom Luljack clarified that the memorandum of understanding that was signed indicated only that upperclassmen would only live in the nearby Kenilworth building (exposing a problem with memorandum of understandings in that everyone hears what they want to hear regardless of what ends up written).
During Luljak’s initial answer he was interrupted almost immediately by someone in the audience. Interrupting UWM representatives and the Boulder Venture team became the norm for the rest of the night, which was certainly disappointing to those actually looking for a reasonable and civil discussion.
After Doug Weas and UWM were grilled repeatedly for breaking a promise they claimed not to have made (and claim to have a memorandum that backs that up), it was time to move on to other things the neighborhood thought was wrong with the project.
Neighbors were concerned about the historical nature of their neighborhood and how this dorm would affect that. While the neighbors certainly have a valid interest in preserving their historic homes, it’s very ironic that they’re interested in protecting a large surface parking lot, empty shopping mall, and Qdoba restaurant (to which they later indicated was a major safety concern because of delivery trucks). The reality of the situation is that the new dorm would be largely hidden by a seven story building immediately east of it and consistent with new development in the area including the next door Whole Foods (Medical Commons building) and Columbia-St. Mary’s hospital complex. These developments are not threatening to the neighborhood because they are infill developments replacing underdeveloped properties. As long as residents don’t sell their homes to absentee slumlords they have nothing to worry about (and as stated earlier, there will be fewer and fewer slumlords if UWM gets its way and eliminates a large amount of their tenant base. The historical factor kept popping up again and again throughout the meeting, and it was really humorous to watch people defend a massive surface parking lot as if it had historical significance.
The issue of parking was brought up. It was clear that residents don’t believe that dorm residents don’t bring cars to campus (as they sign an agreement that they won’t if they don’t rent an on-campus parking spot), despite UWM’s assurances they do (including having the agreement on hand). In my personal experiences (and post-meeting survey) I was able to come up with only person who brought a car to school “illegally” freshman year (and hid it in the Columbia property parking garage). The simple fact of that matter is that the cars are generated by commuters and off-campus residents. The dorm would actually reduce the number of cars in the neighborhood. The dorm is also located directly on the 30 bus route (which students can ride for free with their Upass) and would also be serviced by the UWM shuttle bus (currently serves Kenilworth and Riverview every 15 minutes until 10 p.m.). This is not to mention the cutting-edge car sharing program UWM has implemented in partnership with Zip Car. UWM does a good job promoting and demanding a car-free lifestyle.
Despite facts in opposition, the meeting attendees almost unanimously voiced their concern via booing, hissing, and actually talking that the proposed dorm would make their already heavily congested neighborhood a nightmare. The stance that appeared to be held by many was that “we need to have our cars and Park Lafayette was the final straw, we can’t let anyone else have cars in our neighborhood other than us.” Numerous people suggested a 700-car parking garage for the dorm or a parking stall for every bed. They also indicated that both the hospital construction site (soon to be a non-issue) and the Qdoba delivery trucks (could and would be redesigned with the new dorm) were creating traffic hazards.
Neighbors had concerns with the density of the project and the process by which zoning would be changed. Alderman Nik Kovac responded to these questions. He stated his position that he believed much of North Avenue should be up-zoned to allow for higher density, mixed-use projects to be built with ease. Alderman Kovac didn’t comment if he thought this development (proposed at 8 to 10 stories) would be out of character for the neighborhood, although I think the new, dense hospital complex across the street makes the thought that it wouldn’t ridiculous.
A few people demanded that the neighborhood associations bond together to prevent the dorm from being built from where they didn’t want it to (which appears to be anywhere).
Sura Faraj, Riverwest resident and former 3rd District Aldermanic candidate, spoke up criticizing the lack of a discussion on the “nitty gritty” of the building being green. She dismissed the partial green roof and demanded a full green roof. She also said that it wasn’t worth discussing a building being built in an urban location, replacing a parking lot, and being located along a transit route, because that just happened with the site. She dismissed these things as not green, just part of the site. She called for the university to be proactive with the building. Basic LEED certification wasn’t enough for her, she wanted the university to aim for Gold or Platinum certification, the highest of LEED certifications. Urbanism, a naturally green lifestyle, that discourages car use, generates less run-off than suburban buildings, and consumes less power is apparently not enough for some.
The final large concern of the night was safety. Not that the students were criminals (which had been largely insinuated for the rest of the night by many), but that they attract crime. Many members of the audience complained of an increase in crime around UWM in the past few years (to which UWM was largely dismissive of and said they didn’t think stats fell on the neighbors side). The paradoxical issue of putting more cops on the street always causes an increase in reported crime was never discussed, even though putting more officers was repeated over and over again. Others suggested that North Avenue was now a crime-haven and that the dorm would only attract more criminals that would mug the new students. The discussion of safety ended without any real resolution and really had no bearing on this specific site. The simple fact is that by putting more eyes on the streets (be it waiting at a bus stop, walking down the street, or simply someone looking out their window) lowers the odds of getting mugged. The proposed dorm would be a good step to building a safer neighborhood by leveraging one of densities inherent advantages.
At the end of the meeting, Kovac pulled no punches indicating his support by telling the UWM representatives that he fully supported building the proposed engineering campus downtown.
It will be interesting to see what comes to the table the rest of the week. At the end of the meeting I was highly discouraged to see such an angry NIMBY crowd oppose something that could actually improve the entire east side of Milwaukee without damaging their homes.