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West Allis considering sidealk improvements for businesses, but wants shop owners to carry insurance

July 15, 2014

West Allis — With an eye toward improving aesthetics and enhancing pedestrians' experiences, West Allis officials are proposing the installation of small green spaces along commercial corridors.

But several concerns including the city's liability provided mixed reaction when the common council weighed the pros and cons of allowing businesses to install so-called parklets between sidewalks and roadways.

The city's public works committee reviewed the proposal July 1 and subsequently moved the issue forward to the full common council with a caveat – businesses need to take out a $5 million insurance policy. The recommendation was made on a narrow 3-2 vote.

Later in the evening, the full council moved against the committee's recommendation and instead voted, 6-3, to require a $2 million insurance policy be taken out.

Parklets, small green spaces that essentially are extensions of city sidewalks, have been growing in popularity in recent years. They usually feature benches and are sometimes surrounded by greenery and public art displays.

Several West Allis shopkeepers have requested the parklets as a means of encouraging pedestrians to linger in the business community. For restaurateurs, they could be used as outdoor dining.

"This is something that is going to move us in a positive, vibrant direction," Mayor Dan Devine said as he spoke to the committee. "It is going to accentuate and project our image."

But a sticking point among a contingent of the city's elected officials was the liability the city faces by allowing parklets. Discussion of how much business owners should share in that liability also entered the equation.

"I think everything we do has some form of risk," Devine said, in response.

City Attorney Scott Post had recommended the council consider imposing a $5 million policy requirement on business owners interested in placing a parklet in front of their storefront. He said his suggestion came after consulting three municipal insurance companies.

"Ultimately, it's a policy matter, from a risk management standpoint," Post said.

The majority of the council had a different perspective from the one offered by Post, however.

"Our policies are favoring large businesses," Alderman Martin Weigel said. "The majority of people are employed by small businesses."

Several other council members held a similar perspective, saying the $5 million requirement was too harsh on small shop owners.

"We need small businesses to vitalize our community," Alderman Michael Czaplewski said.

But proponents of keeping the insurance requirement higher expressed concerns about possible accidents in the surrounding area.

"The risk on Greenfield (Avenue) is great," Alderwoman Rosalie Reinke said. "There's a lot of traffic along there, and it moves swiftly. We should make sure the city is protected."

Alderman Gary Barczak, who chairs the Public Works Committee, said he was uncomfortable voting against Post's recommendation.

"My opinion is I'll go with staff's recommendation before I do something I'll regret," Barczak said. "You have insurance for 'what-ifs.' Here, the level of 'what-ifs' is greater."

City staff have been directed to draw up an ordinance with the $2 million liability requirement in place. For now, officials have indicated the parklets will targeted along the downtown shopping district on Greenfield Avenue, though the feature could eventually be expanded elsewhere in the city.

A draft version of the parklet ordinance will be presented and acted on in August.

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