On second thought, maybe the pool wasn’t such a good idea.

Despite a much higher price tag and the absence of a potential community pool that had been the center of interest by many Verona residents over the past few years, the Common Council voted unanimously Monday, June 22, to pursue a deal with Steve Brown Apartments to redevelop the Sugar Creek land.

The city is acquiring that 12-acre site south of West Verona Avenue between Legion and Marietta streets from the Verona Area School District in November, and Monday’s decision, as city administrator Adam Sayre put it, is only the beginning. The $54 million project from Steve Brown – which is partnering with the Alexander Company – is expected to take months of planning and two or more years to develop.

All seven alders present explained their reasoning, and they tended to place a high priority on the retail space in the Steve Brown plan and how that could help connect disjointed shopping areas in the city’s core. Mayor Luke Diaz called a walkable downtown a “mandate” he had been elected as an alder to fulfil in 2013.

The 32-page plan for the site shows 236 apartments – 104 meeting federal guidelines to be called “affordable” – plus 10,000 square feet of commercial space, a civic plaza to host events and activities and a possible children’s museum in the former New Century School building. A preliminary timeline indicates full buildout could be as soon as July 2022, though some alders suggested phasing it more to recognize the havoc the COVID-19 pandemic could wreak on its marketability over the next several months.

It could require as much as $8.9 million in taxpayer funding to pay for the gap in financing, including building roads and utilities, demolition of the existing Sugar Creek Elementary School, subsidizing affordable housing and discounting commercial space that might not get tenants early on given the situation with the pandemic. Representatives for the two companies have repeatedly stated over the past several weeks that is not an official request for taxpayer funding and they are confident they can lower that amount – almost in half if all the grants they apply for and pending legislation come through.

A table submitted with the proposal shows a 25-year payback time on a new tax-increment financing district if that entire amount is necessary; the council would need to approve any such spending after creating the district.

The Steve Brown plan won out from among six submitted by the April 27 deadline (which had been extended more than a month because of the pandemic). The past three weeks, it had only one remaining competitor, McKenzie Apartments, after the city’s Community Development Authority chose those two to recommend to the council.

When they first discussed the plans June 8, alders struggled to even lean toward one over the other. And even Monday, they complimented both plans.

McKenzie’s original $52 million plan would have packed 318 apartments onto the site, along with an eight-lane pool, a .7-acre park, a 4,000-square-foot playground, a bandstand and a separate dog park. Its TIF request would have been around $2 million, owner John McKenzie told alders.

A key point of McKenzie’s proposal was repurposing the New Century building into a skilled trades program in partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County. McKenzie is a frequent donor to the nonprofit, whose Sun Prairie club is named after his family.

Alders reported constituent preferences going both ways based on the pool, the children’s museum and the skilled trades program, as well as the plan to bring more retail shops and the different treatments of connecting the site to downtown. But support for the pool dwindled bit by bit as alders and constituents began to realize there was not enough space for the aquatic center so many people have hoped for, leading alders to prefer the larger park space with year-round uses.

“I would really like to see a pool, but I would like to see us do it right,” Ald Chad Kemp (Dist. 1) said.

Pool politics

The thought of putting a pool within walking distance to half the city was irresistible to many alders and commissioners at first, but those who were interested in the pool decided to keep looking for another spot.

Others have noted that while the city doesn’t have an aquatic center, it’s got Fireman’s Park beach with a new splash pad, the Natatorium at the old high school and two pools at the new high school, plus the Town of Verona has the Goodman Aquatic Center.

After Steve Brown and Alexander reps called McKenzie’s pool plan into question during the June 8 council meeting – superimposing area aquatic centers onto the map to show there wasn’t enough space – McKenzie submitted a new proposal, which he called Option B, skipping the pool.

He still defended the pool in the original plan as adequate and comparable to Monona’s.

At one point, Kemp asked about other potential locations for the pool, and Sayre explained why each of the 12 sites originally explored three years ago had been ruled out – mostly lack of space or lack of availability.

Retail details

Alders clearly favored the retail connected to the housing, in an urban style known as mixed use – with commercial space on the bottom and apartments above.

That was something McKenzie had been adamantly against in multiple interviews with the CDA and council, saying the retail component suggested in the original request for developer proposals did not have a proper market.

During public comments June 22, he cited the stalled Sugar Creek Commons development just to the west, the incomplete Market 5 project, empty stores to the east and a plan by Northpointe Development Corporation to redevelop the Klassik Tavern and Old National Bank sites just across the street from the Sugar Creek land.

“When something’s not working, why would you spend Verona taxpayers money to build more of it?” McKenzie asked.

He also noted that the Steve Brown proposal would spend upwards of $750,000 to subsidize rents for commercial tenants early on to create momentum, saying he’d be a better steward of Verona taxpayers’ money. Steve Brown’s updated proposal called it a “loss leader,” and representative Brian Munson countered that the site’s options “can’t be replicated anywhere else in the city” and that the scale of the project could create a “synergy” benefiting the shops.

Alders seemed unaffected by calls to reduce their cost, indicating the opportunity to connect the dots downtown was too important an opportunity to pass up.

“Retail in our city is fairly scattered,” Ald. Evan Touchett (D-4) said. “It’s hard to create an area for people to go to and experience multiple things; this provides that opportunity.”

Email Verona Press editor Jim Ferolie at veronapress@wcinet.com.