Sunday, November 4, 2007

Interchange On Hold. Maybe The Same For Defining "Upscale," or "Regional."

Until there is a firm deal for an upscale mall, no I-94 interchange will be built to its site at Pabst Farms, in Western Waukesha County.

This is the latest pledge from the powers that be - - the county, the state and Pabst Farms' owners - - in the wake of the first mall upscale mall developer's withdrawal from the project.

Here are the key paragraphs from the Journal Sentinel story linked above, which begs the question: just what is a "high-quality regional shopping mall." or do you merely know one when you see it?

"Funding for the interchange is contingent on development of a large, high-quality regional shopping mall.

"Retail industry insiders have speculated that Pabst Farms and local officials might have to scale back their vision for a grand shopping mall at Pabst Farms and settle for a cluster of so-called big-box stores - huge, free-standing buildings, each with its own massive parking lot, such as a Wal-Mart.

"But Mayor Maury Sullivan has said the city will not allow big-box stores to replace the mall. And Allison Bussler, chief of staff to Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas, said a big-box development would not meet the county's criteria for release of its funds for the interchange project.

"'Certainly, there won't be county funds if that's the proposal," Bussler said."

But let's not get too giddy assuming that either grassroots' environmentalism and conservative spending had reasserted themselves to slow up the interchange 'schedule', since:

  • The interchange proposal got sketched into the road design in record time for government action when the mall developer and county officials noticed that there was no I-94 access to the former farm's mall property- - a testament to bad planning in a so-called planned community, on land that the regional planning commission just down the road had recommended be retained as prime ag property, in a region of smaller towns with established business districts. Some had called all this planning.
  • Nearly all the $25 million to pay for the interchange, more than 90% state-funded, was 'found' in existing budgets, then moved around administratively like Monopoly money. Some swore that was actually called budgeting.
  • There is no transit connection to Pabst Farms, not even to the City of Waukesha. No one calls that balanced transportation - - but so far, except for 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, no one has suggested running transit, even rail lines, to and from Pabst Farms. Somehow that defeats the upscale definition of the entire project out there.
  • Two new subdivisions at Pabst Farms are on hold due to the downturn in the housing market. With one upscale mall development abandoned, is a smaller mall, or a cluster of department stores or big-box stores surrounded with the requisite acres of parking how the site might get developed? We'll see what gets labeled acceptably as interchange-worthy - - $25 million bucks worth?

I suspect that the announcement about the perhaps delayed interchange - - and I say perhaps because we all know that the state transportation department is just itching to get that far western segment of I-94's future expansion jump-started - - is as much PR as it is economics.

After all, Waukesha County is tax-rebellion country: spending tax money to serve one special interest, upscale or not, might not be how the good folks over at Citizens for Responsible Government want their gas and property revenues used.

2008 is an election year for the locals: how tightly tied to "upscale" and "private" do they really want their campaigns to appear?

So don't be surprised if the next plan for that mall site gets labeled "upscale," or "regional," even if it's just a gussied up Wal-Mart or Home Depot, or a collection of undistinguished buildings that ain't much more than what we used to call a shopping center, or just "the mall."

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