Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 10:56 am
Last summer, Bartolotta Restaurant Group LLC wanted to add a sign on the north side of its Mr. B’s-A Bartolotta Steakhouse in Mequon.
Doing so would have given the restaurant, at 11120 N. Cedarburg Road, more visibility and, according to Bartolotta, a level playing field with Café Hollander, located kitty-corner at Mequon Town Center.
However, the application did not meet the requirements of Mequon’s multiple-page signage ordinance and was denied by the city’s plan commission. So was the appeal that followed in the fall.
Instead, Bartolotta was allowed to put the “Mr. B’s” name on the sign for Riversite shopping center, where the restaurant is located.
Mequon has long been known for its strict development rules (like its signage ordinance), large homes and modest-sized commercial buildings. But now, the city has slowly begun to embrace the concept of mixed-use developments.
The city’s first mixed-use, urban-style development, Mequon Town Center, was completed about two years ago in a district, also called Mequon Town Center, that city officials had planned for several years. Now, two more projects are planned to complete the town center district: Spur 16 and Foxtown.
Mequon offers unique challenges and opportunities for real estate developers. Maintaining some of the strictest design and development rules in the region, Mequon has earned a reputation as one of the most difficult places in the area to do business. But at the same time, Mequon is also one of the most affluent communities in the state, making it a desirable location for both residential and commercial developers.
“Our building standards and engineering standards tend to be a little more stringent and we tend to be a little fussier,” said Mequon Mayor Dan Abendroth. “Anything too big, too wide, too tall or that generates too much traffic is going to run into a lot of problems here.”
If a homeowner wants to put decorative bricks in front of her house, the bricks must go all the way around the property.
Buildings cannot be taller than the tree line, with the exception of Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital Ozaukee on North Port Washington Road.
Commercial developments must be less than 50,000 square feet, which means a big box store will never be allowed in Mequon. Walmart has tried, unsuccessfully, to get approval for a store there.
“We know it costs more money and makes the economics of a commercial project more difficult so we don’t get as many, but we don’t want to create regional attractions,” Abendroth said.
Early years of development
Like most municipalities, Mequon’s standards for development are based on its land use plan. Mequon’s was first developed in 1985 and now is in its 10th edition.
Connie Pukaite, who served as an alderwoman from 1981 to 1986, mayor of Mequon from 1986 to 1992, and alderwoman again from 2014 to 2017, helped develop the original plan.
In the early 1980s, when the country was in a recession and experiencing double-digit inflation, Pukaite said Mequon residents were in favor of expanding the tax base because the cost to operate the local government was increasing and so were the property taxes.
“People wanted development, but they also wanted Mequon to remain a quality community, so we really worked on developing that first comprehensive land use plan,” Pukaite said.
At the time, more than two-thirds of the city was open farmland. Located about 20 miles north of downtown Milwaukee, Mequon spent decades as a farming community with vacation homes peppered along Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River.
Abendroth, 63, moved to Mequon in 1983, buying one of those vacation homes along the river that abuts a 100-acre nature preserve. Like many of the baby boomers who moved to Mequon in the 1980s and 1990s, Abendroth wanted to get away from the city.
After the early ’80s recession ended and the economy took off, there was a huge demand for housing in the suburbs, Abendroth said. The farmers were selling their land to developers and the property was zoned residential.
From the mid-1980s and into the ’90s, Mequon experienced a housing boom, with 200 to 300 houses being built per year. The city’s first shopping center, Mequon Pavilions, 10930 N. Port Washington Road, was also built.
When Pukaite became mayor in 1986, she said the development pressure was tremendous.
“Even though we were developing really lovely subdivisions and neighborhoods in the mid-1980s and ’90s that are now very much in demand and desirable, people did not like them,” Pukaite said. “You will always find people who do not like to see any change that development brings. And people like to complain more often than not.”
The tax base began to grow very quickly.
When Mayor James Moriarty was elected in 1992, longtime Mequon residents wanted development to slow down, said Abendroth, who began serving on the Common Council in 1986.
Pukaite views her successor’s term as fearmongering.
“(Moriarty) was able to pander to the fear in people that change would ruin Mequon,” Pukaite said. “It hasn’t ruined Mequon. People want to come here today. And people born and raised here are still here. That is the kind of balance we have tried to bring to Mequon.”
By many accounts, Moriarty was combative, serving six tumultuous years as mayor. A 1997 Milwaukee Magazine article described Moriarty as a “blunt, confrontational politician who kept a Nixon-like enemies list and could be vindictive toward those who opposed him.”
In 1996, Alan Harrington, a former alderman, filed an ethics complaint against Moriarty, claiming that instead of leading, Moriarty “assaults, humiliates and degrades residents.”
Moriarty, who served two terms and declined to run for a third in 1998, could not be reached for comment.
Abendroth, whose wife is Moriarty’s second cousin, agreed Mequon’s government was not collaborative under Moriarty. However, the development restrictions were, and still are, what the residents have asked for, Abendroth said.
Mequon Town Center
In 2005, the concept for the Mequon-Thiensville Town Center, a downtown district three miles west of Mequon’s existing retail concentration of strip malls at West Mequon Road and North Port Washington Road near I-43, was first discussed.
The plan was going to incorporate two parcels of land owned by Mequon developer Cindy Shaffer and parcels owned by the City of Mequon.
Original designs called for bringing buildings closer to the sidewalk and moving parking to the rear of the commercial buildings.
Despite buy-in from both communities, the 3-acre mixed-use project took 10 years to complete.
The economy crashed and Shaffer later partnered with Milwaukee developer Blair Williams, owner of WiRED Properties LLC, who had experience with Main Street-type projects. Before Mequon Town Center, Williams completed the Ravenna project on North Oakland Avenue in Shorewood, which includes 20 apartments and 8,100 square feet of retail space.
In 2015, the Mequon Town Center development opened, with two four-story buildings that include ground-floor retail space and 28 high-end apartments, northwest of Mequon and Cedarburg roads.
Café Hollander opened in 2016, and the development has a total of 36,000 square feet of restaurants and retail, including Colectivo Coffee, The Ruby Tap, Elements Massage and Health in Balance Physical Therapy.
Like Bartolotta, Williams and Café Hollander owner The Lowlands Group LLC didn’t get all of the signs they were hoping for when Hollander was being developed.
During a Jan. 12, 2015 plan commission meeting, Williams argued with plan commissioners about the merits of a glowing red roof sign that would have featured the world “Hollander” and the restaurant’s lion logo.
Roof signs are not allowed in Mequon’s sign code, although Outpost Natural Foods, 7590 W. Mequon Road, was granted one after agreeing to back the sign with a screen wall.
Williams, who did not want to be interviewed for this story, argued in 2015 that the sign was needed for traffic passing by quickly on West Mequon Road. Williams also said that when a building is all one color, it feels more like a strip mall than a retailer’s brand.
Mequon plan commissioner David Fuchs, who was not in favor of the restaurant’s contemporary architectural style, said the sign felt too industrial and did not fit with Mequon.
In the end, with the majority of plan commissioners objecting, the roof sign was removed from the proposal.
Abendroth admits signage has been a “terribly, terribly difficult” issue in Mequon over the years.
“People don’t want big, obnoxious signs, but then businesses want big, obnoxious signs,” Abendroth said. “The chamber even got involved to rewrite the sign code. So we rewrote the sign code to allow for more flexibility. But I don’t think that stopped anyone from complaining. It’s a never-ending battle.”
One professional who has worked in municipalities across southeastern Wisconsin said sometimes elected officials and city staff give designers freedom to develop an interesting catalytic project, and other times they don’t understand the necessity.
He gave the example of Drexel Town Square in Oak Creek and The Corners project in the Town of Brookfield, where traditional signage rules were overlooked so both projects would become the unique cornerstones of those communities.
“When a community tries to design by committee, it is always a very difficult process for developers, to say the least,” he said.
Another developer who has worked in Mequon said the planning department micromanages while “small-time, backroom politics” takes place, making it impossible for developers to do successful business.
“I believe Mequon is getting development in spite of the leadership,” he said.
Despite the overall success of Mequon Town Center, some members of the community have still complained that the development has brought too much traffic to Mequon.
Others don’t like the buildings’ proximity to the sidewalk.
“Change is always hard,” Shaffer said. “But I think overall, from the community, I have heard a lot of positive things – especially from younger couples, who are so glad to have a place to go and love having Café Hollander or Colectivo.”
Shaffer and Williams sold Mequon Town Center to Plover investor Rolly Lokre, principal of real estate development firm Lokre, in December 2016.
Shaffer said she never intended to sell the property, but Lokre, who paid close to $20 million for the development, made an offer that she could not turn down for her investors.
As Mequon Town Center was opening, the city continued the momentum by issuing a request for proposal to develop 14 acres of city-owned land directly west over the railroad tracks, north of West Mequon Road.
A handful of developers competed for the project, including Shaffer and Williams.
Shaffer’s project, to be called Spur 16, was chosen and she purchased the property for $60,001.
“We knew what we wanted to see there, so we gave the land to someone who would do what we wanted there,” Abendroth said. “Even after the Town Center success, it is controversial. People say it’s a backroom deal. Or it’s because we knew her. Well, the next best proposal was Blair, and we know him, too.”
Abendroth said Shaffer’s $27 million proposal was chosen because she is incorporating the original buildings on the site.
“The other proposals offered a sea of apartments and a couple of strip buildings,” Abendroth said. “She had a unique proposal with concrete plans. And she basically has it leased out.”
Spur 16, located at 6300 W. Mequon Road, will include St. Paul Fish Co., Anodyne Coffee Roasting Co. and Purple Door Ice Cream. The Mequon Public Market, which is expected to be open by early fall, is also part of the development.
The project also includes 146 luxury apartments and 10 townhomes that are expected to be occupied in December.
“It’s important that we address the challenges of things like traffic and parking while making sure we are bringing great amenities, restaurants and lifestyle choices to the people of Mequon,” Shaffer said.
Pukaite, who rejoined the Mequon common council from 2014 to 2017, said Mequon Town Center and the development that is now taking place west and south of it has been very intentional.
“I’m very pleased with the way things are going. Frankly, I’ve been chomping at the bit thinking it is moving a little slow,” Pukaite said. “What we wanted was a place where people could identify as the downtown of Mequon. Milwaukee has many neighborhoods and many areas to shop, but there is a downtown district. We wanted to create a downtown district.”
Directly south of Mequon Town Center, on 17 acres of blighted land, a $50 million project being called Foxtown is also in the works.
Foxtown, which is the third phase of the envisioned Mequon-Thiensville Town Center district, is being developed by Thomas Nieman, owner of Mequon-based Fromm Family Foods LLC.
Milwaukee-based Stephen Perry Smith Architects Inc. is the project architect.
The project will include The Foxtown Brewery and Restaurant, which will be housed in a building dating back to 1857 located at 6411 W. Mequon Road. Previous breweries at the site included Jung Brewing, Mequon Brewing and Opitz & Zimmermann Brewing.
The property includes two levels of lagering caves that were used before the invention of refrigeration to age and cellar beers. Nieman will incorporate the caves into the brewery.
The project also has mixed-use buildings with ground-level retail and office or commercial space on the second floor, a 23-home “pocket neighborhood,” and a possible extended stay hotel.
Approximately 96 luxury apartments will also be developed by Bob Bach of Saukville-based P2 Development Co. on land currently used as a school bus parking lot.
The project will be developed in phases between 2018 and 2020, according to plans submitted to the city.
With apartments included at Mequon Town Center, Spur 16 and Foxtown, the city has been meeting recently to discuss putting limits on the number of apartments and types of multi-family developments that can be built in Mequon.
One of the stipulations will be no more than 16 units in a building and the apartments must be part of a larger project, Abendroth said.
“We’re afraid that with a couple hundred apartments coming now, we will saturate the market,” Abendroth said. “We don’t want to make any of them unsuccessful by having too many.”
Some longtime residents and elected officials have balked at the idea of apartments altogether, which angers Pukaite.
“It’s sad that people think apartments will bring an element of people we wouldn’t want in Mequon,” Pukaite said. “When my husband and I first got out of school, we couldn’t afford a house. I’m that ‘element’ they don’t want in their community. Every city, every community should have the capacity to embrace a wide range of citizens – even those who don’t have the same resources as the very well-established.”
At 46 square miles, Mequon is the fourth-largest city (geographically) in the state; but with limited sewer service, much of the development was confined to the southeast corner of the city.
Over the past 30 years, Mequon has morphed from a farming community into an affluent suburb with McMansions situated on sprawling parcels of land.
Whether the commercial development that has occurred during the past decade has happened in spite of the elected officials, as some developers have said, or due to careful land use planning, depends on perspective.
But Mequon and Thiensville residents no longer have to leave their city for a craft beer. Or a massage. Soon, they will have their choice of gourmet ice cream flavors and their own public market.
“There is still an element of people who will criticize everything we have done and how we got to it, but I hear a lot of good things,” Abendroth said. “I live in a small house that overlooks 100 acres. Personally, I don’t care if any of this (development) is here. But I realize for a city to succeed it has to do certain things. From a business standpoint and from a community standpoint, it is a wonderful thing to have.”
Mequon Town Center projects
Mequon Town Center
Location: 6006 W. Mequon Road
Developer: WiRED Properties/Shaffer Development LLC
Project: Twenty-eight luxury apartments and 36,000 square feet of retail and commercial space. Tenants include: Colectivo Coffee, Café Hollander, The Ruby Tap, Elements Massage, Health in Balance Physical Therapy, Fisher Family Chiropractic and Supercuts.
Opens: Fall 2018
Location: 6300 W. Mequon Road
Developer: Shaffer Development LLC
Price: $27 million
Project: 146 luxury apartments, 10 townhomes, Mequon Public Market. Tenants include: St. Paul Fish Co., Anodyne Coffee Roasting Co. and Purple Door Ice Cream.
Opens: Phased development begins completion late 2018
Location: 6411 W. Mequon Road
Price: $50 million
- The historic brewery building that will include a bar and restaurant being developed by Thomas Nieman, owner of Fromm Family Foods. Scheduled for completion late fall or by end of 2018.
- Second building will have a restaurant and banquet room on the first floor and offices for Fromm Family Foods on the second floor. Scheduled for completion by spring 2019. Both restaurants will be operated by Gordon Goggin of The Stilt House in Cedarburg and Toast in Milwaukee.
- 96 luxury apartments developed by Bob Bach of P2 Development.
- The former icehouse and lumberyard buildings will be renovated into the Hamburg Bier hall and retail shops. Beer brewed at the Foxtown Brewery will be served here, as well as sandwiches and appetizers. Scheduled for 2019.
- Two three-story multi-purpose buildings and one two-story building. First building scheduled to start in 2019 for 2020 completion.
- Twenty-three pocket home condominium project.