Neighbors against proposed Waukesha Meijer development come out in full force

Submitted Photo
Alderman Vance Skinner
Published on: 7/30/2013

Ken Heine sat in his chair and heard City Planner Jennifer Andrews share the updates to the Meijer development on the city's southwest side.

He heard how the revised plans were to eliminate one of the proposed two access points to just one on the west end of Sunset Drive to help eliminate traffic concerns. And he heard that doing this would shift the retention pond to the east, which Andrews said allows for increased landscape that will help block out light and noise.

"The effort here is to create a layered effect of landscaping," she said, while adding the site still must have lower light poles and more vegetation and landscaping can be worked into the plan.

Overall, Andrews said she felt the revised plans "are moving in the right direction."

"We tried to address what we heard at the last meeting (May 8) and in the neighborhood on landscaping, architecture, lighting and traffic," said Brian Randall, a Milwaukee attorney who is representing Meijer. "We believe those answers have been attained and really make some great strides to make this a good fit for this particular location."

Looking at progress

Heine certainly didn't think so after hearing from Andrews and Randall. And when it was the audience's turn to speak he was the first one to voice his concerns to Meijer officials and the Waukesha Plan Commission at its July 24 meeting.

The basis of his qualms centered on the word, "progress."

"The dictionary states the meaning of the word progress No. 1 is to move forward and No. 2 is to get it right," Heine said.

Heine, along with others who live in the area where the supercenter would be built on the corner of Tenny Avenue and East Sunset Drive, feel the city is not progressing and not getting it right with where Meijer plans to put the store.

"Do you think that by approving the Meijer development in the proposed area truly defines the meaning of the word progress?" Heine asked, while about 20 others held up yellow signs with a slash mark through the word Meijer. "If you cannot answer with an honest yes, then I don't think this community is progressing."

He questioned whether putting a 24-hour, 192,000-square-foot food, clothing and home merchandising store, along with a 2,500-square-foot gas station is progress with many similar stores nearby. He also anticipates decreased safety with more traffic, increased noise and light pollution, and his property along with others on Larchmont Drive decreasing in value.

"Is this progress?" he repeated.

Members of the Plan Commission didn't directly respond to that question, but while most also had some concerns, they ultimately approved the updates to the preliminary plans.

The land will have to be rezoned to commercial and the land use map will next come before the Common Council for a public hearing Aug. 8 at City Hall, 201 Delafield St.

Alderman wants changes

Residents, at that time, can have another say before all of the aldermen. Some were present at the Plan Commission meeting, including Alderman Steve Johnson who represents constituents in the district where Meijer would build.

Johnson, who said he doesn't believe this site should be rezoned, was adamant in what he wanted to see change.

"No. 1, I want to eliminate the gas station," Johnson said. "(And) eliminate the 24-hour portion of it."

That didn't happen and Randall said Meijer wouldn't build without these options, nor would it build with hours that see the facility close by 10 p.m. as Plan Commission member R.G. Keller suggested.

"The 24-hour store is an instrumental part of our offering. It is a need and part of our business plan," Randall said, while adding the gas station is also "part of what Meijer offers."

Randall did say that when the facility is in non-peak hours — during the middle of the night — parking lighting is turned down in spots it's not needed, with also significantly less staff. In total, Meijer would offer up to 250 jobs.

Randall said Meijer operates 200 supercenters in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky, and in the last 15 months, the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based store, has looked at expanding in southeastern Wisconsin with stores in Oak Creek, Grafton, Sussex, Kenosha and Wauwatosa (the proposed Franklin store was dropped earlier this year).

"We have significant experience (in operating them)," said Randall, saying they've been good neighbors in residential areas.

Too many similar stores?

Even so, Alderman Vance Skinner worried about the long-term viability of bringing another retail/grocery store into the city. He noted that there's a Pick 'n Save, a new Woodman's Food Market, a recently renovated Aldi and a new Walmart Neighborhood Market all within a two-mile radius of each other.

"We can all look at the former Jewel-Osco (the store at Highway 164 and Arcadian Avenue closed in 2008) that still sits empty today," Skinner said. "I don't know what it takes to support this many stores doing the same type of business."

Randall said he couldn't respond to the market study that was done but said the position of the store is part of a strategic review and an overall plan to serve various communities in the area, not just the City of Waukesha.

In regard to the multiple competing stores nearby, he replied, "this is the place to be then. Retailers have proven that this is a good location."

Meijer's risk

That response spurred a sarcastic laugh from audience members who didn't agree with this assertion.

Mayor Jeff Scrima had to intervene to remind audience members only one person can speak at a time. Randall, nonetheless, said while he recognizes not everyone will be a Meijer's customer "at the end of the day, competition is good for everyone."

Skinner added, "It's certainly Meijer's risk. It's their dollars they're spending to build in Waukesha. From a consumer perspective, I can appreciate having choices, but I think with the risk we have is looking at empty storefronts when a store doesn't make it."

Not in her backyard

Waukesha resident Dorothy Pancer, who lives on Larchmont Drive behind the proposed the site, had the same thought and harped back to Heine's question.

"I've lived on that hill for 17 years," Pancer said. "Our bedrooms face Sunset. We get a lot of noise now. How many trucks is Meijer's going to bring in on Sunset? Now, I'll be listening to all this traffic going back and forth. I don't think so. I don't think it's a very good idea and you know what, I'm from Chicago so I'm not really narrow-minded on progress.

"I don't have anything against progress. I just don't want it in my backyard, because to me that's not the right way to do things."