The City of West Allis has been named one of the top three cities in the Milwaukee-metro area for ease of doing business with real estate developers. The Milwaukee Business Journal surveyed more than 30 members of the local real estate industry from almost as many different companies. All have worked in multiple municipalities in the Milwaukee area. Oak Creek was the community most frequently credited in the survey with supporting the needs of real estate developers, followed by Milwaukee and West Allis.
According to reporter Sean Ryan, "The results represent an honest look at which communities are viewed as welcoming or difficult, and what local leaders should do if they want to attract more development. The communities that do those things are more likely to attract dynamic development. At stake is property tax base and quality of life brought by more stores, restaurants and job-creating office or industrial buildings."
Read the full article below:
By Sean Ryan – Reporter, Milwaukee Business Journal
Oct 4, 2019, 6:00am EDT
Given the chance to share horror stories about dealing with local governments, developers don’t spin tales of corruption, quid pro quos or anything that heinous.
They talk auout the planning manager who took days to respond to a message, or “seem to be making it up as they go along.” There is the plan examiner “fighting to see who is the most technically correct” who wouldn’t budge from the exact letter of a state building code even if leeway wouldn’t risk health and safety. There’s also the elected official who was unpredictable, or withdrew support after 15 neighbors “came out with pitchforks and torches” at a public hearing to complain.
Those are among the common concerns that developers, architects, commercial brokers and builders raised when surveyed about the best and worst local communities in southeastern Wisconsin to work with on project approvals, and why. The Milwaukee Business Journal surveyed more than 30 members of the local real estate industry from almost as many different companies. All have worked in multiple municipalities in the Milwaukee area.
The six-question survey is anonymous because members of the industry are concerned that if they speak ill of a local government, it could hurt their future chances of getting a project approved.
The results represent an honest look at which communities are viewed as welcoming or difficult, and what local leaders should do if they want to attract more development. The communities that do those things are more likely to attract dynamic development. At stake is property tax base and quality of life brought by more stores, restaurants and job-creating office or industrial buildings.
What the commercial real estate industry wants, our survey found, is to be told up-front whether staffers across all departments are on board to support their project, and whether elected officials will be open to it. If the answer to those questions is ‘yes,’ staffers provide a step-by-step rundown of exactly what a developer must do to gain approval, and how long it’s going to take, and they stick to it. “Consistency” was invoked again and again.
“A lot of this has to be trust between the municipality and the investor,” one responder said. “We are going to do what we say, and need you to do what you say.”
It isn't cheap to draft and revise plans while seeking municipal approvals, and developers said they want to know up-front if they face an uphill battle to gain approval. A "no" that prevents a lot of brain damage and wasted money is preferable to a "maybe."
"A quick yes is the best answer," on responder said. "A quick no is the second best answer.”
Oak Creek was the community most frequently credited with accomplishing those things, followed by Milwaukee and West Allis.
“We try to swim upstream to over-correct for that reputation that bureaucracies are slow, winding and inefficient,” said Oak Creek city administrator Andrew Vickers.
“We really see ourselves as business partners in the venture, especially when we want to make good projects happen,” Vickers said. “We have constraints. We have things we need to do as a government to look out for our residents and taxpayers, yes. But we also need to put ourselves in the perspective of our partner, our development community.”
Developers have high expectations because they work in a world of chaos, and don’t want a municipality throwing in more wild cards.
Michael Mooney, chairman and principal of MLG Capital in Brookfield, said his firm has developed about 7,000 acres, and each had a surprise along the way. Only one was a good surprise: the state unexpectedly decided to build a four-lane highway next to MLG land in Sussex. The other surprises are unknown contaminated soils, unrealized high water tables, neighbors who filed lawsuits, or global economic impacts brought on by war in the Middle East.
“You never know from what direction the lightning bolt is gonna hit, or how many bolts of lightning there are, or if somebody is going to discover dinosaur bones or Indian burial mounds or whatever,” Mooney said.
Mooney reacted to the results of the survey, but he and MLG Capital are not among the firms that provided survey answers.
That built-in uncertainty is why many real estate firms avoid communities that are seen as difficult. At best, they see government as a partner to dodge lightning bolts, at worst they are another source of those unpleasant surprises. It costs money to seek a local approval, and time is always of the essence if they’re paying holding costs on land, or have a business lined up to move into a proposed building.
“This whole business is a business of problem-solving continually,” one responder said. “You have to be able to work with staff.”
WHAT'S THE PROBLEM?
The municipalities most frequently cited as difficult to work with were Milwaukee, Franklin and Mequon. Milwaukee was unique in receiving both high praise and frequent criticism, but the two were directed at different sections of city government.
Most praise was directed to the Milwaukee Department of City Development, a first stop for zoning and plan reviews or requests for city financing. Criticism was aimed at the political nature of gaining votes on the Common Council, and the Department of Neighborhood Services’ plan review department, which oversees permitting and building code issues.
Responders criticized the Milwaukee Common Council’s general practice of aldermanic privilege, where most members of the council will follow the lead of the one aldermen whose legislative district includes the property where a project is proposed. Established aldermen can be difficult to work with, and others will trade votes on different, unrelated issues, one person said, adding “it’s just life in the big city.”
“In the last six years, the whole political nature of the Common Council have been in revolt,” another responder said.
Political leadership was cited by many responders as an important issue. A leader who will push staffers or tear down barriers is important to shepherd any project through approvals.
Also, communities must have a broader agreement among elected leaders on the type of development they want to encourage, and where.
“Have a master plan that is updated to reflect the current and future expectations of the community at large,” one responder said. “The number one thing is to the extent a developer brings something that matches the plan, make it as easy as possible.”
As Mooney noted, those long-range plans provide the justification to advance a project even if immediate neighbors complain.
“If they go through that process in a stable, objective, studied way, it’s the cover for the decisions that they could make subsequently when the naysayers rise out of the peanut gallery and complain about something,” Mooney said.
Franklin Mayor Steve Olson said city officials recognize past difficulties, and in the past five or more years have made changes to address them. He said over the past 10 years, Franklin officials have been working to reshape the city zoning code after recognizing it was “a bit onerous,” Olson said.
Efforts are underway to streamline the plan review process, Olson said. For example, department heads are gathered in a meeting early in a project review to share any possible concerns up front, he said. The city of Oak Creek follows the same practice.
“We’ve intentionally hired people who have a customer service perspective,” Olson said, adding that there’s been a nearly full changeover in the inspection staff over the past two-and-a-half years.
John Wirth, who was elected Mequon mayor in spring, said the community has attracted development to its new town centers along Mequon Road, such as Foxtown and Spur 16.
Wirth said some city policies won’t change. Besides a hospital, the city will never have a five-story building, he said.
“There’s nothing wrong with communities creating some consistency and some recognition of their own character,” Wirth said. “We’re not looking for the highest and best use. We’re not looking to have development for the money. Everybody always accuses communities: You are allowing that in because you want the money. What we want to have is development that is consistent with the character of Mequon.”
Wirth is pursuing possible administrative changes in Mequon that match what developers identified as overall best practices. He said he is interested in creating more certain standards in the zoning regulations and enforcing them.
A subcommittee of the Plan Commission is exploring that while also drafting a long-term plan for future land uses on Port Washington Road, which one responder to the survey specifically said is needed. Separately, the city is studying its internal process for how engineering, development and inspection departments review proposals to look for improvements, Wirth said.
“Are there ways these groups can interrelate better so we have more efficiency, so we are speaking more clearly to developers during the process so it goes faster?” Wirth said. “I’m not doing this because I think we have a terrible problem. I’m doing this because I want to make sure we provide the best customer service we can.”