Saving forgotten Wauwatosa -- and the rest

Published on: 11/5/2011

For those with short attention spans, I'll put the conclusion first.

Let's not be so fast to sacrifice what makes this community the place of trees and homes in favor of gray infrastructure--boxes and lines and towers--to meet future energy needs. Instead, let's find solutions that don't degrade the human and real estate values of our homes here.

I'm referring to the plans by American Transmission Company (ATC) to run new overhead high power electric transmission lines through two of several areas in our community. One is the Underwood Parkway between Bluemound and some point on the County Grounds. I'll concentrate on this area because it's my backyard.

But the larger argument for sustaining the beauty and walkability of our neighborhoods applies as well to our friends on Walnut Street and at St. Therese's, who don't want the lines there either.

Before I get too far, please remember that Wauwatosa has a south side, a west side, and a north side as well as the village and  the North Avenue east side. There are formal plans and investment in those two more central areas. But when it comes to my side of town, residential community is largely forgotten. The talk is all about Mayfair Road or the County Grounds. One is a roadway. The other is an important piece of land over which the city has only zoning clout that it is reluctant to use.

And yet ours is a key gateway area. Developers and planners usually pay attention to city gateways because people's first impressions about a place are formed there.  

Between important commercial areas and main transportation lines, there are some 900 homes in the Underwood Parkway area. Some have big yards, some have smaller ones. Most have wonderful big trees.

Trees plus generous open green space in a fully developed, mature area: priceless. That's why most of us bought here, I think: it has a feel of being in the country, an up north feel. We thought we knew what we were getting.

In this city, ours is an area of low trail and sidewalk density. Yet people walk here, all the time. Much of that walking is because of the Underwood Parkway, a wonderful natural green gateway to Wauwatosa. But it's not only a "key pedestrian destination" and part of the Oakleaf Bike Trail. It's an important zone for wildlife and water control, bordering and arguably part of a wetland. It's real if not fancy parkland. And it's part of the greenspace every city planning session and document since at least 2004 has pronounced vital to Wauwatosa's sustainablity.

It's no secret to developers and planners that walkable urban and close-in suburbs are becoming and will continue to be the most desirable places to live in the longterm future. And the "midcentury houses" many of us own-- ranches to us oldsters -- that the last generation scorned are considered cool by the ones buying houses now.

Cutting down trees and running tall gray lines through this under-recognized gem of a parkway adjacent to temporarily under-valued housing is just goofy.

Have you heard the Broken Windows theory? If you let a neighborhood deteriorate, people stop valuing it. Housing prices drop, crime increases, deterioration speeds up. In Milwaukee, abandoned houses are being repaired as a way to stop crime as well as maintain value.

We care about and take care of what looks nice. What doesn't look nice, we let keep sliding.

I think we all know that already, without any theories. So let's not speed decline of an area that should be a growing asset. It's time for Wauwatosa to decide thoughtfully how it wants to manage infrastructure development and not just let it happen by crisis or according to what's easiest, cheapest, or least protested at the moment.

If you want to learn more about the plans, what people think, and what other options might be available, a neighborhood meeting will be held Monday, November 7, at Underwood School. ATC will be there for an open house from 5-7 pm, with a presentation to start at 7. Keep in mind that this meeting, called by the neighorhood, will focus on issues specific to the neighborhood. But all are welcome.

After all, we're all in this together.