What should become of vacant riverfront near downtown Waukesha?

Scott Peterson
The antique shop along the Riverfront near downtown Waukesha was torn down in December. It added to the vacancies on this property. The mayoral candidates debated this property during Monday's debate at UW-Waukesha.
Published on: 3/4/2014

The six-plus acre property has become a de facto-parking lot.

The Hardees sits vacant. Two other buildings, one of which was most recently an antique mall and was formerly a Sentry Foods, have been demolished.

The property along the riverfront between Waukesha State Bank and Northwest Barstow Street and across from the city's transit center on St. Paul Avenue is prime real estate.

It remains empty, and what will become of this site is unknown. It was, however, debated Monday night during the mayoral primary between Mayor Jeff Scrima and challenger Shawn Reilly.

"That property is owned by four different property owners," Reilly said. "I would like to work with them. My goal is to get all four property owners to be working together and build an anchor there. With my background, I understand it's the property owners that control that type of issue. However, the city can provide a lot of help and direction to those property owners. My goal would be to have one of them step forward and combine all four properties and present something to the city that the city can be proud of."

Scrima referred to the city's central city master plan, approved in 2012, as a way to move the downtown area forward.

"Since I've been in office I've reached out to a number of developers in collaboration with our community development department," Scrima said.

Scrima referred to a proposed convention center at this site that fell through, saying, "The developer who had control of the property did not want to put in any of their own money. They asked for city taxpayer money, but they wouldn't put in any of their own money."

Berg Management asked for a regular tax incremental financing plan in which the city would loan the developers money that would be paid back through property taxes.

He also said the city reached out to ProHealth Care after hearing it was attempting to build a new cancer center in the area. But ProHealth Care decided to build its center along I-94. Scrima also said he reached out to other regional developers, such as the Mandel Group Inc.

The Huelsmans, of Berg Management, own the parcel where the Hardees was located at Barstow Street, while attorney Charles Davies owns property east of that, including the former antique mall.

Catherine Huelsman, general manager of Berg, said two national restaurant chains are interested in repurposing the Hardees location and have put in two "very active offers."

But Huelsman said the brokers left the city discouraged.

"They came away with the impression that the city was very negative and wasn't encouraged about partnering and was very autocratic," Huelsman said. "If we want to grow Waukesha, the city has to work with developers, not turn them away."

Community development specialist Jeff Fortin said whatever goes into the site will connect with the downtown image. He added the city is willing to work with anyone on a concept. Development could include multiuse buildingswith retail and housing, as it's zoned for central business district.

"If someone else has a different idea and is in the general scope of what we want to see in there, we'll work with the developer," Fortin said. "It depends on the developer, and it's market driven."