Abele Hopes Reversal of Park East Denial in Offing

By James Wigderson

Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

Is Milwaukee County open for business? Last week Milwaukee County’s Committee on Economic and Community Development voted 4-3 to delay for one month possible approval of the proposed first phase of the Park East Square apartment development in the Park East corridor. The committee is meeting again on Tuesday to revisit that decision and decide whether to recommend approval of the project to the whole county board.

For some of the committee members, the issue concerns one of the developers involved with the project and their treatment of a union janitorial service at one of their properties. Stewart Wangard is the lead developer on the first two phases of Park East Square. His firm, Wangard Partners Inc., replaced a union janitorial service with a company that does not have a contract with a union, a move that affected 12 employees.

This angered Service Employees International Union Local 1, which led to the vote for the delay in the committee. The vote to delay consideration of the project came despite support for the project from a number of other unions in the private sector. The janitorial service in question is at a property not part of the Park East corridor.

In a phone interview Monday afternoon, Milwaukee County Chris Abele expressed his frustration with the board. “Honestly, I was surprised. The good news is that the board heard the backlash.”

Abele was asked, if the vote goes the way he hopes on Tuesday, will the business community see this as a situation where only saints should consider doing business with the county, or if, in his words, “we can work with those guys.”

“I truly hope it is the latter. I’m truly hoping the business community see this as a blip.”

He added, “This was not our best foot forward.”

Abele estimated that the delay would cost at least $150,000 to the developer if the project were delayed for a month.

The first phase of the Park East Square project would have 86 apartments, 14,600 square feet of retail and 246 parking spaces, with a development cost of $20,285,000. The second phase, connected to the first, would have a 95-unit apartment building with a development cost of $14,750,000. There is a third possible phase that may include apartments and a hotel.

Park East Square would be in Milwaukee’s Park East Corridor, an area of land that was cleared for development when the Park East spur of the freeway system was torn down. Proponents of tearing down the stretch of freeway at the time argued that the land would be quickly developed and would have a much better long-term impact on the city than a little-used freeway spur that was never allowed to completed as planned.

However, development of the Park East Corridor has been slow. The freeway spur was torn down in 2004 but a number of factors have conspired to delay development. Some have suggested the parcels of land are too big for smaller developers. Others have pointed to the economy. Still others have pointed to conditions imposed on development by the county as a deterrent to potential investors.

The Park East Redevelopment Compact (PERC) enacted by the county requires, among other things, a prevailing wage paid during the construction, green design elements, a percentage of “affordable housing,” and minority set-asides. The PERC was passed over then-Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker’s veto. The city of Milwaukee considered but decided against having a PERC for parcels of land owned by them.

Given the existence of the PERC and its regulations, it would seem to make concerns about the developer’s labor practices moot.

When the delay passed, Abele said, “My first thought was, ‘What kind of message are we sending to the business community?’ My second thought was, ‘Look, if you care about the issues in the PERC, is the need to make a point so overwhelming?’ There could have been a better way to make the point {about the janitorial change} without blocking jobs.”

Abele said some supervisors are trying to get directly involved in the development process, when what needs to happen there needs to be one point of contact for businesses. He said, “We really need to improve the process if we’re going to attract business.”

At Tuesday’s committee meeting, we’ll see signs if Milwaukee County is open to business, or if the Park East Corridor will remain empty so a few supervisors will be happy that they sent a message.