Creating a new downtown Mequon/Thiensville

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:22 pm

Mequon and Thiensville forge bold new plan

The new downtown, which is tentatively named the City of Mequon and Village of Thiensville Town Center, would feature a mixed use of development, including a riverwalk, upscale townhouses, new streetscaping, small retail shops, office buildings, a brew pub, an amphitheater, a farmer’s market and a botanical garden.
The 200-acre downtown area would span Cedarburg Road and the Milwaukee River in downtown Mequon, and head north along Green Bay Road into Thiensville.
The collaborative project is blossoming after several recent meetings between members of the Mequon Development Board and the Thiensville Town Center Committee.
"No blood has been spilled," joked Brad Steinke, director of community development for the City of Mequon.
In fact, the joint effort received a boost from a $10,000 economic development grant from San Antonio-based SBC Communications Inc., parent company of Ameritech Wisconsin. The grant helped enable the communities to hire Teska Associates, Inc., and Business Districts, Inc., both of Evanston, Ill., and Templer Communications and Consulting, Inc., Shorewood, as consultants to develop the Town Center plan.
That plan will be presented to the Mequon Common Council and the Thiensville Village Board in October.
"They will decide what they want to do with the plan," Steinke said. "Both communities have to have the guts to move this forward."
"It’s a visionary project," said Sarah Elliott, a village trustee and chairwoman of the Thiensville Town Center Committee. "Its goal is to set a vision of what could be. It’s for the good of the whole, without being territorial."
To proceed, the two municipal boards must form a Mequon/Thiensville Central Business District Redevelopment Committee, Steinke said.
The joint committee would then pursue public funding for the new downtown.
Elliott has "no doubt" the Town Center plan will receive the support of the two municipalities’ governing boards; the next step would be to develop support from the local business community.
According to the consultants’ cost estimates, the project would require a public investment of $4.7 million from Mequon and $2.7 million from Thiensville.
The public funding would likely be borrowed and repaid over time by establishing a tax incremental financing district, Steinke said. However, the plan also calls for the consideration of forming a business improvement district, a community development corporation or authority and other types of public financing mechanisms.
Although some unofficial surveys of residents in both communities have indicated enthusiastic support for such a project, Steinke did not discount the possibility that public referenda may be needed before the project could proceed.
"I think people realize that this is the heart of the city, and they would like a downtown," Steinke said. "The word ‘urban’ is difficult to roll off the tongue out here."
Indeed, Mequon’s development strategy has long been to create a pastoral setting in which people in automobiles travel to intended destinations.
"Deep setbacks, plenty of landscaping, less asphalt, severely managed signage and lighting … some may call it the post-World War II approach, but that’s been Mequon’s approach for 40 years," Steinke said. "We’ve gone as far with our code to basically outlaw ‘big-box’ (retail). It’s an automobile-based community.
"All of that is different than the Town Center plan. We believe we can revitalize this area and do something different," Steinke said.
The plan would establish a common gathering place, in which pedestrians could live, work, shop and play, according to Michael Hoffman, project manager for Teska.
"That’s what we’re hoping for," Hoffman said.
Like many upscale suburbs in southeastern Wisconsin, Mequon has matured into a sprawling community without a designated downtown area. The city, incorporated in 1957 from the old Town of Mequon, surrounds the one-square-mile Thiensville, which was founded in 1910.
The plan calls for public expenditures to acquire private land to develop a new Riverfront Park in Mequon, which would include a riverwalk and an amphitheater. New ballfields would be developed, along with a botanical garden and a pedestrian bridge over the river. The existing municipal pool and ballfields near City Hall may be moved.
The private development would include upscale townhouses, selling for $300,000 to $400,000, west of the Mequon City Hall. The townhouses would be primarily targeted for "empty nesters, retired people and young professional couples without children," Steinke said.
The townhouses would be appealing to older Mequon residents who no longer need the living space in their large homes, but still want to reside in the area, Hoffman said.
The Thiensville public expenditures would create new streetscaping, lighting and landscaping for the village’s existing downtown area, a riverwalk, a community green area and a pedestrian bridge.
A farmer’s market and build-to-suit office buildings of 15,000 to 30,000 square feet would be developed in the Thiensville segment.
Clusters of small retail shops would be located in the Main Street business area of Thiensville and near Mequon Road.
The riverwalk would extend from Thiensville Park south to Mequon Road.
The Town Center developments would be phased in, with business openings tentatively scheduled for early 2004. However, the overall project may take a decade to complete.
To succeed, such projects typically need private investments four to five times greater than the public investment, Steinke said.
"We’ve heard from some regional and national developers interested in investing in this project – once the plan is in place," Steinke said. "Some of this is just making this a nicer place to be. A high tide raises all boats, and I think that will play out here."
"Particularly, the residential stuff – we think it’s perfectly feasible," Hoffman said. "It has been verbally tested with the development community. They thought there was significant potential for upscale, higher density residential development. And once that occurs, there is the possibility for supporting retail development."
Carl Templer, president of Templer Communications, has pitched the Town Center project to national, regional and local developers, and their consensus opinion is that the project is both feasible and worthwhile, he said.
"It’s got the character, the charm and the river. It will work," Templer said.
For Town Center to proceed, some private land would need to be acquired by the joint entity formed by the communities, Templer said. That land would then be sold to developers, who will make requests for proposals for the various components of the project, he said.
In an era in which the state budget is tight, shared revenue to communities is in jeopardy and the call for lower tax rates is stronger than ever in Wisconsin, progressive projects such as Town Center face logistic hurdles.
Officials involved in the plan hope some of the Mequon area’s wealthier residents will see the merit in the project and be willing to donate to help defray the public’s share of the costs.
"Is it an obstacle? Sure, but not an insurmountable one," Hoffman said. "The potential outweighs the negatives of the tax situation."
In the meantime, the proponents of the Town Center are looking for a new name for the project, "something to put some sizzle to the steak," Steinke said.

Sept. 13, 2002 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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