Wauwatosa height limit spurs more housing debate, advances for more discussion

A proposed five-story cap on new buildings for some properties along busy streets in Wauwatosa advanced Tuesday after a lengthy discussion over the city’s current apartment development activity.

Recommended by Ald. Joseph Makhlouf, the proposal would set a 60-foot height limit on new buildings proposed for commercial properties with a zoning designation that is common along Mayfair and Bluemound roads, for example. Those properties currently have no height limit under the city’s zoning code.

Makhlouf’s proposal would affect only properties within 50 feet of residences. He said that, under current law that doesn’t set height limits, a developer could conceivably build something in Wauwatosa as tall as the world record-holding Burj Khalifa located in Dubai.

“No one would ever believe anyone would propose a 28-story tower in Wauwatosa either, yet it happened,” Makhlouf said. “It can happen again just as easily today.”

Makhlouf and others backing the proposal made several references to the 28-story Drew Tower. That development was proposed for a property at West Bluemound and North Mayfair roads with a zoning that doesn’t limit building height. Drew Tower prompted a lengthy debate that included residents suing the city, and was shelved after rising construction costs and other factors made it unbuildable without public financing.

Drew Tower is among the factors that prompted city officials to look at changing the current C2 zoning code that caps density of new housing units, but not building height.

The proposed height cap cleared Wauwatosa’s Community Affairs Committee on Tuesday on a 4-3 vote. It goes next to the Common Council, which could forward it to the city’s Plan Commission for further discussion and revisions. Wauwatosa’s planning department had asked that the height limit be shelved so the city could perform a comprehensive study on the issue.

Ald. Jason Wilke, Community Affairs Committee chairman who supported Drew Tower, said addressing the lack of height limits on certain commercial properties “is long overdue and it is a hot topic with our community and the residents.”

“I’m all for development density and height where it’s appropriate, but I think we need to kind of put a pause on a certain number of parcels near residential neighborhoods,” Wilke said.

Beyond the intricacies of the zoning code change, the discussion also veered into a back-and-forth over high-end apartment construction in Wauwatosa.

“I don’t know who wants to live there, and it’s not going to be families who are going to have their kids go to school, so I don’t know why you agreed to that,” Wauwatosa resident James Gates said of apartments such as those proposed for Drew Tower, or envisioned in new buildings the city recently advanced near Mayfair mall.

City development director Paulette Enders referred to Wauwatosa’s historic moniker as the “city of homes.”

“It’s not just single family homes,” she said. “Apartments are homes, and I think people need to remember that.”

Ald. Sean Lowe said new development benefits city residents by adding property value to the tax base, and raised concerns that a height limit would send a negative message to developers.

“Development does help everybody,” Lowe said. “We’re not trying to force anyone to leave Wauwatosa, but we do have to be innovative. I don’t think having height limits on new developments is beneficial because I think developers would laugh at our city.”


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