Wausau officials on Tuesday amended an agreement for a downtown condominium plan to clarify that the city will have no obligation to maintain or operate a pedestrian bridge as part of the project.
But Wausau’s Community Development Director, Liz Brodek, said if the walkway is built, eventually it will be deeded over to the city for maintenance. Currently, she said, there is no concrete plan in place.
The city’s draft agreement, with Wausau Opportunity Zone Inc., relates to the WOZ Condominium project proposed for a portion of the former Wausau Center mall property. The initial draft, on p. 164 of the meeting packet, stated an intention “that the pedestrian bridge and pedestrian bridge structure may be owned by the public and thereafter operated and maintained by the city.”
The language was a red flag for some council members. Alder Gary Gisselman said he was not comfortable subjecting the city to any future obligation since no details about the bridge have been discussed.
“I think that one of the things that bothers me with this agreement is there’s several of these obligations of the city that may be hindering us later on,” Gisselman said. “I am not comfortable with the city maintaining, operating or doing whatever. We can deal with it when it’s built.”
But Dist. 7 Alder Lisa Rasmussen defended the language and did not see a reason to amend or renegotiate the agreement, which was drafted by outside counsel and reviewed by the City Attorney and WOZ’s legal team.
“The operative word is ‘may’ and not ‘shall,'” she said, adding that saying the city ‘may’ own something does not mean the city has to do it later. “And the difference between ‘may’ and ‘shall’ is critically important to us when we look at our contract.”
Ramussen said the agreement as written did not mean the city would be bound to maintain the bridge, which has been the subject of significant public debate. Wausau officials drew sharp public criticism in November 2021 when applying for at least $10.5 million of the city’s potential $15 million in Neighborhood Investment Fund dollars to build the bridge. Critics decried the decision to fit the bridge into the grant program, which was created to help communities tackle projects that address housing, transit and childcare initiatives with a particular emphasis on increasing services for underserved people and populations. State officials ultimately denied the funding.
Alder Tom Kilian, representing Dist. 3, was an outspoken critic of the bridge proposal when city staff applied for the state grant, dollars he said could have been used to improve conditions for struggling residents.
Kilian was similarly critical of the language in the condo agreement. He said that historically, he has seen how things have changed with such agreements and reminded fellow council members that legal review is “not policy review.”
“When we hear the term ‘may’ it becomes ‘shall’ very quickly and then it becomes ‘does’ It’s almost invariable,” he said.
When Kilian asked Brodek to state the name of the entity bearing the cost of construction for the matter of public record, Brodek said the owners of the two non-city-owned units – WOZ or any successive owners.
“If I recall correctly, the contemplation is that Units 1 and 2 owners would be constructing that,” Brodek said, which, she added, is WOZ Inc.
WOZ can object to language
Alder Doug Diny asked if WOZ Inc. could object to the change in the agreement. The short answer is yes.
City Attorney Anne Jacobson said WOZ can refuse to sign the Declaration if the City Council voted to remove that language.
“I agree with Alder Rasmussen that it is permissive and kind of future-looking,” she said. “I agree it does not commit us to do what it says but Alder Kilian’s point is well-taken as well.”
Before the vote on his amendment, Alder Gisselman also raised concern about language related to the city’s ownership of the parking ramp, part of the condominium project. That section states the ramp is “intended to be owned” by the city, but the city already owns the property. An outside counsel said the language clarified ownership of all three units, two of which are owned by WOZ.
The motion to amend the declaration and strike off that language passed 5-4, with alders Gisselman, Kilian, Becky McElhaney, Lou Larson and Dawn Herbst voting in favor and alders Rasmussen, Diny, Michael Marten and Chad Henke voting against. Alders Carol Lukens and Sarah Watson were absent. The amended motion passed 7-2, with Kilian and Larson casting the two nay votes.
In addition to the Declaration, the resolution on the agreement reflected several items including approving Wausau Opportunity condominium plat, Bylaws and Articles of Incorporation of Wausau Opportunity Condominium Association, Inc., Deeds of the Condominium Units, and appointment of a city director on Condominium Association Board for WOCA, Inc.
Mayor Katie Rosenberg, who is tasked with nominating the city director for the Condominium Association Board for WOCA, Inc., told Wausau Pilot & Review that she has not appointed anyone yet and plans to do so in the beginning of the next year.