Vacant Olympia Brown

The former home of Racine Unified's Olympia Brown School on Erie Street in Caledonia sits vacant and boarded up.

CALEDONIA — Looking to induce residential development, the Village of Caledonia is considering resurrecting a tax increment district surrounding some vacant lakeside properties that have been mired in controversy.

The long-deserted Western Publishing buildings and the vacant former Olympia Brown School in the 5900 block of Erie Street have been a thorn in the side of village leaders for years, particularly after Racine Unified relocated the Olympia Brown School and the REAL School in 2016 and 2017.

Again, there’s hope that some development may be coming for those properties, as well as land between the east end of Five Mile Road and Erie Street. A three-part TID, encompassing 38.7 acres, received preliminary approval during a special Plan Commission meeting Monday night at Village Hall, 5043 Chester Lane. The TID is still subject to approval by the Village Board.

“This is an area we would like to go and develop as a village,” said Plan Commission member Duane Michalski.

If everything goes according to the plan presented at Monday’s meeting, the TID could create $1.19 million in revenue for the district by 2024, which would continue through 2047. This money would allow improvements to the district — such as demolition of existing buildings, purchasing property, sewer improvements and street construction — that could actually draw a developer, instead of sitting vacant as they are now.

Village Attorney Elaine Ekes referred to the proposed TID as “a plan to help guide the village as it helps redevelop that area.”

The plan hopes to draw a developer, or possibly several developers, to hopefully construct three separate types of development on three separate areas within the TID:

  • Luxury condos on 20.2 acres along Lake Michigan where the school currently stands.
  • Market-rate apartments on three acres on the west side of Erie Street.
  • Single-family homes on approximately 15 acres of forest and grassland to the southwest of Waters Edge Road and east of Five Mile Road, which could also be extended all the way to Erie Street as part of the TID.

If all the development comes through, there would be room for about 800 residents.

Nothing is being rezoned at the moment, and nothing can be built until that happens. Brian Della, a financial adviser to the village from Milwaukee-based PMA Securities, Inc., said that there aren’t any conversations with developers yet.

A public hearing took nearly 3 hours Monday night, with more than a dozen residents speaking negatively about the vision demonstrated within the TID, although a few said they supported it with some minor tweaks.

Major concerns related to the loss of green space, trepidations that an apartment building would be inconsistent with other residences in the area, accusations that the village hadn’t sufficiently notified neighboring residents about planning for the TID, and fears of raised taxes.

New plan, old feel

This plan is a quasi-resurrection and expansion of a TID that was closed in 2012. That district was established to develop luxury condos on the former Western Publishing property, dating back to 2007, but those condos never got off the ground, in part because of the Great Recession.

The Western Publishing properties, which have been vacant for decades, have been subject to vandalism, theft and trespassing, drawing more calls for change from neighbors and the village itself. The school has quickly become an eyesore with its blocked-off windows and caution tape draped over an unused playground and entrances.

There are “obsolete structures in need for removal,” Ekes said.

Village Finance Officer Dave Wagner said that he thinks the TID that folded was doomed by how small it was. That TID included only the former Western Publishing area, about one-fifth the size of the TID the Plan Commission approved Monday.

The new plan also includes bluff stabilization along the lake.

Also, the northeast corner of the vacant land that could be used for single-family homes is comprised of wetlands. The 15 or so acres projected to become single-family housing is owned by Dr. Steven J. Ryder, a surgeon who works in Racine.

The village currently owns only one-third of an acre within the proposed TID. Racine Unified owns a little over 18 acres, but has not been able to draw development there over the past nearly three years. Two private LLCs own the remaining five acres.

Ryder said he doesn’t plan to build on his 15 acres, despite having previously considered building a house there. He said he would think about selling if he felt that the wildlife already in that area, including hundreds of trees, would be at least partially preserved.

Ryder added that he’s afraid of being “low-balled” by Caledonia should the village try to purchase the plot itself. Ryder said he has hired an attorney, in part because he fears the village might try to employ eminent domain.

Village President Jim Dobbs said the village may use eminent domain to acquire some of Ryder’s land to construct a connection from 5 Mile Road to Erie Street, but he said that land would be necessary for construction along Erie and also to allow improved emergency vehicle access. He said that eminent domain would not be used to take the rest of the land.

The cost of a TID

Village Administrator Tom Christensen said that he believes the TID will “pay for itself” by 2034, with the option to extend that deadline out until 2047.

This assertion drew ire from several residents, who felt that even if the direct costs of development — such as roads and infrastructure — would be covered by the TID revenue, there would still be increased taxation from added residents and possible diminishing of nearby property values.

Dobbs assured critics that, if a developer comes forward whose plans don’t mesh with neighborhood, then that developer’s proposal could and should be rejected by the Village Board.

“We wouldn’t be forced to do something by the developer if we didn’t want to,” Dobbs said.

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Before the JT hired him, Adam graduated from St. Cat's in 2014 and Drake University in 2017. He covers homelessness and Caledonia, is the JT's social media leader, believes in the Oxford comma, and loves digital subscribers: journaltimes.com/subscribenow

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