Change with the times, or hold tight to tradition?
That’s the question the Sturgeon Bay Plan Commission must grapple with in weighing whether to approve a proposal to rehabilitate the old west school into affordable housing. At its Monday, Sept. 30 meeting the commission got an updated look at Andy Dumke’s proposal to use the old school as the centerpiece of a 40-unit housing complex that would take advantage of tax credits for historical reuse and redevelopment and low-income housing.
“We pretty much need tax credits to make it viable,” said Dumke, a principal of Northpointe Development in Oshkosh.
Apartments for those making 50 percent of the area’s median household income would rent at $565 for a 1-bedroom unit, $660 for a 2-bedroom, and $750 for a 3-bedroom. Those would be easily the most affordable rates of any of the housing projects pitched to the city in recent years, and the first that qualify as affordable housing for those making the median income in the city.
Dumke outlined plans for 43 surface parking spaces and 30 underground spaces and a 56,585 square foot addition to the school building.
City planning staff recommended the commission approve a Planned Unit Development ordinance for the project, subject to a variety of conditions related to utilities, landscaping, parking and approval of the Aesthetic Design and Site Plan Review Board.
The project faces stiff opposition from fans of the old west side ball field. The unique field carved into the hillside next to the old school is home to Wednesday night softball league and assorted youth games. Though it doesn’t get nearly the level of use of other city parks, it is steeped in tradition and nostalgia for those who love it.
“This field cannot be easily replaced,” said Carl Bridenhagen, president of the Aloha Softball Tournament that is played on the field and raises money for community causes. “It was built by volunteers and the Aloha Softball Committee. The only thing contributed by the city is the shell of a building and the ground.”
Bridenhagen said it’s home to the last adult softball league in Door County. “If we lose this field, adult softball will die in Door county.”
Bridenhagen and others cautioned the city against “rushing into this development,” but others said it’s no time to wait. The old west side school has sat empty for nearly 20 years without a viable plan for development. The city, like the rest of northern Door County, is desperate for affordable housing for new teachers, nurses, wait staff, young families and workers at its manufacturing businesses.
“In order to continue to be able to be competitive in the worldwide marketplace, we need a skilled workforce base and a great community to attract people to come work for us,” said Erich Pfeifer, President and CEO of Marine Travelift and Exactech.
“We need to have attainable, quality housing in this marketplace to be competitive.”
He said workers will commonly come to Sturgeon Bay, work for a couple of months, then leave for Green Bay when they can’t find housing.
Most opponents of the plan said they recognize the need for affordable housing, but called the school location the wrong place. Several suggested the city should look to build such housing on the east side, where it could be closer to WalMart and grocery stores.
Richard Soukup called it “a monstrosity of a building that does not fit Sturgeon Bay,” a sentiment echoed by other neighbors who said affordable housing does not belong at the entrance to the west side. At three stories the apartments would be the same height as the existing school, and would have three more units than the Bay Lofts apartment complex that opened down the street in 2017. City staff said the proposal does not come close to using the maximum impervious surface area allowed on the property.
Dumke said he would like to investigate a phase two on the property for senior housing if the city identifies that as a need in the future.
Pat Blizel, former athletic director at Sturgeon Bay High School and a neighbor of the property, said the field is a centerpiece of recreation on the west side, but alluded to traffic and crime concerns if its built for low-income residents.
“Let’s be honest, the value of my home is going to go down,” he said. “It’s going to bring more people, more traffic. I’ve never locked my house in 58 years living on the west side.”
In written testimony Jim Schuessler, Door County Economic Development Director, pointed out that to qualify for the housing residents would have to be employed and pass both credit and background checks. He said the project could help stem other disturbing trends in the city as well.
“It’s crucial to the attraction and retention of workforce to stop the decline in Sturgeon Bay’s population,” he said. The Sturgeon Bay student population has declined 14 percent in recent years, he said, which raises costs for taxpayers to fund the school.
Kelsey Fox moved back to Sturgeon Bay two years ago after living in Milwaukee for 14 years. She said she has great memories at the ball field and initially recoiled at the idea of losing it, but ultimately Door County needs to make some tough choices.
“I don’t think there will ever be a right place. I don’t think there will ever be a right time,” she said. “We have to be thinking about how we can have a sustainable workforce and a sustainable community.”
“People need to be willing to accept change,” said Dave Schanock of Roen Salvage. “We can’t take a backseat to change and development.”
The commission did not take a vote on the proposal. That will likely happen at its Oct. 16 meeting.