Does the mall redevelopment need more transparency?
City leaders seem to be becoming more and more frustrated with feeling left in the dark with projects
There was a crucial moment in the demolition of the Wausau Center mall. The Third Street entrance, an elaborate and picturesque entrance that came to symbolize the mall for many, was set to come down.
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The mall demolition brought bittersweet feelings amongst Wausau’s population. In City Pages’ annual Best of the Wausau Area survey, the mall’s demise was both the best new development, and the worst. On a recent podcast I hosted with Jarrod Crooks, I reached out to people about their favorite memories of the mall, and there were a lot of mixed emotions. We felt them too.
So this was an important moment in Wausau history, the taking down of the front entrance as it stood tall amongst the rubble. All the media would be on hand to witness it, as at least some of them were told when to expect it.
Except they weren’t. The entrance ended up coming down before journalists arrived, allegedly out of last minute safety concerns. Frustrated reporters showed up only to find that the tower-like entrance was already in a heap by the time they arrived.
The entrance’s demolition serves as a symbol for how the entire mall demolition process has proceeded: With all the decisions made behind closed doors, despite a massive investment in public dollars. Public input was promised, only for the public to find out all the decisions have already been made by the time they learn about them. Even council members — even some of the typically less vocal — have complained that they’ve been kept out of the loop.
That’s the case with the latest two developments: Seeking COVID relief money for a pedestrian bridge and a flipflop in projects to favor the new mall development.
“What the heck is going on?”
Becky McElhaney, the current council president, expressed what many others were likely thinking at a recent economic development meeting. “I’m a little frustrated with how this is happening,” she told the committee last week. “Residents are asking me what the heck is going on?”
She was talking about a new project in the Riverlife development area by T. Wall Enterprises. Approved earlier this year, the project was supposed to build a residential and commercial building in the Riverlife area in 2022, the third project in the city’s flagship development zone.
She’d just been informed with the rest of the committee by Wausau Opportunity Zone Project Manager Chuck Ghidorzi that apparently WOZ and city staff have been working with T. Wall to switch the developer’s schedule around, so T. Wall would build the first mall redevelopment project first, in 2022, and hold off on Riverlife project until 2024.
None of this was approved by the council, which was only informed about this when it already sounded like a done deal. (It wasn’t and still isn’t, to be clear; but it was presented that way.) While the council has no control over who WOZ chooses for its projects since it is a private entity and that was part of the agreement, the Riverlife project was subject to city approvals and the agreement called for its Riverlife project to be constructed in 2022.
In all fairness, that agreement will need council approval before it is final. But committee members such as McElhaney likely took exception to the fact that they were being informed about this as if it were a mere courtesy and already in the works, when it’s something that does requires their approval.
A windy bridge
An application for grant dollars of around $10 million for a pedestrian bridge — one that was included in WOZ’s original vision for the mall redevelopment — brought about similar surprise.
As Community Development Director Liz Brodek explained, the timeline to apply for the grant was tight — it was due Nov. 11, now in the past as you’re reading this.
There was no official discussion, as the council declined to discuss it; but there was plenty of discussion about whether there ought to be discussion. And a few such as council member Deb Ryan gave her opinion anyway, ignoring chair Mayor Katie Rosenberg’s admonition not to discuss it because the council hadn’t yet elected to.
Brodek’s explanation makes sense. It might seem superfluous to spend COVID relief money (the DOA-administered grant program grants out American Rescue Program Act funds) on a pedestrian bridge pet project, but one of the requirements of the program is that the project be shovel ready. The program is intended for affordable housing, child care and public works projects in communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.
As Brodek explained, while child care is a passion of hers (as she told The Wausonian in her initial interview) there was no such project ready to go, and a tight timeline meant there was no time to develop one.
In the case of the bridge, the mistake was in the fact that elected city leaders felt like they were getting info after the fact, not something that leaves a good taste when they’re elected to be decision makers for the city.
At least one alder, Tom Kilian, whose district the project would be in, is still very much opposed to the project. He sent a letter to the Department of Administration denouncing the use of funds intended to provide COVID relief:
This particular application and proposal does no such thing. Instead, it simply funnels millions of COVID-related relief funds into high-end development plans. Additionally, the mall’s closure and demolition – or the pace of such things – had absolutely nothing to do with COVID-19. It is clear from records that I reviewed that, even just a few months into the COVID pandemic in 2020, WOZ planned to demolish the mall in 2021. And community concerns were already raised some time ago that WOZ appeared to have leveraged an “Opportunity Zone” by capitalizing on the plights of low-income people and people of color in Census Tract 1, and then used such “opportunities” to fuel its gentrification plans in the downtown.
The land swap
Probably one of the oddest proposals — at least, that’s how several city leaders perceived it — had to do with Westside Battery. The site of the former shop has been empty for more than five years, and has had two failed redevelopment proposals for it (both restaurants, and neither fell apart because of issues with the site itself).
Gorman and Co. proposed an affordable housing complex, something city leaders (elected and non-elected) have stated is sorely needed. The city started an affordable housing task force which is meeting soon, if that’s any indication. With 50 units renting as low as $375 (ranging up to $1,100+, depending on size and income restriction), it’s a shot in the arm for that kind of housing.
WOZ also made a proposal, and it’s… um… to do nothing. In a Seinfeldian gesture, the site would literally become a site about nothing. WOZ would tear down the building, and leave it empty. Somehow, Ghidorzi told the economic development committee, this would create a “sense of arrival.”
Whereas Gorman is paying something to the city for the site, WOZ offered to exchange land within the mall redevelopment area. Land that the city already helped fund the purchase of when it offered $1 million of the $3 million purchase price of the mall in the first place. It’s like having a family member help pay for your car, then turning around and offering to rent it to them if they want to use it.
To cap it off, in a move I’ve never before witnessed, much of WOZ’s presentation had to do with critiquing the Gorman proposal. Instead of selling the merits of their own project, Ghidorzi spent a lot of time explaining why Gorman’s proposal was a bad idea, and why they’d have plenty of opportunities for projects in the south riverfront area instead.
To be clear, I have been covering city governments for 12 years now, and I have yet to witness a developer spend most of their time arguing against another developer’s project. The closest I’ve seen was actually the opposite: Gorman’s own Ted Matkom once argued the city ought to select his competitor’s proposal over his company’s. (It was explained to me that this was a confidence-signaling tactic; and in fact Gorman was ultimately chosen for that project.)
Surprising absolutely no one, the Economic Development Committee chose Gorman. The closed session barely took 10 minutes, and the result was unanimous in favor of affordable housing.
It was also a defeat for WOZ, and leaves anyone watching the proceedings to wonder: what will the future of the mall redevelopment be, if WOZ has lost the favor of the city council?
This is now three moves that have seemed to really put off city elected leaders; it will be interesting to see how that dynamic shapes future proposals for the site and other actions by WOZ. While WOZ is an independent for-profit company (not a non-profit, as some other media outlets have mistakenly claimed) which owns the mall redevelopment site, it will likely come to the city looking for more money in the future.
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