Milwaukee Historical Commission allows demolition with a catch

Proposed Wisconsin Avenue view

When is a compromise not a compromise?  When one party wants no part of it.

That’s what happened last night when the City of Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission voted 4-1 to allow developers seeking to build a Marriott Hotel downtown to demolish five buildings on Milwaukee Street which are part of the city and national historic registry. The catch, the commission imposed a condition on the hotel plans that the developer refuses to budge on.

The condition? Set the top three floors of the hotel tower at least 15 feet from the property line.

It wasn’t the outcome Ed Carow and Mark Flaherty, partners in Jackson Street Management LLC, wanted. They had hoped the commission would have simply voted up or down on the proposal, with its recommendation moving on to the city council. That way the council would get their shot at the issue, where Mayor Tom Barrett and Council President Willie Hines Jr. have expressed support for the project.

Instead, HPC chair Randy Bryant wanted to seek a compromise, since his personal opinion is “not everything that is old is worth saving.” He pushed the developers and their architect, Doug Nysse, to accept the idea of setting back the upper tower.

“We are making a historic move here, to allow you to demolish historical buildings,” Bryant said. “We recognize that restoring these buildings might not be cost effective. We’re open to a new hotel and we’re willing to allow some leeway with some restrictions on the historic appearance.”

Evan Zeppos spoke for the developers after the meeting and he described the commission’s caveat as political chicanery.

We will appeal the condition first thing tomorrow to the council,” Zeppos said. “We’re disappointed but not surprised. This is a bad decision for Milwaukee, for economic development and for downtown. We wanted an up and down vote, but they failed to do that.”

Instead Carow and Flaherty will take their case to the city council, where they will need 10 votes to pass the proposal they presented Monday night.

In a related move Monday, Ald. Terry Witkowski proposed ending the “bureaucratic drama” of the commission by promising to introduce legislation that would allow the Common Council to review the role, procedures and powers of the HPC.

“By it’s action the commission is essentially delaying and preventing the city’s duly elected legislative body from taking action on the important Marriott proposal. The delay has been harmful to the viability of the project,” Witkowski said.

Proposed Milwaukee Street view

While Barrett and Hines are supportive, Ald. Bob Bauman, who represents the district where the new hotel would be built has beenvocally opposed to the project, even before it was publicly presented to the commission. His opposition has been so public in emails and press releases, that the developers’ attorney attempted to have him recused from the proceedings.

That did not happen, but the usually animated Bauman seemed uninterested in the discussion, objecting to the motion and then casting the sole vote against it.

The  marathon meeting was the continuation of a unofficial and official debate whether historical properties should be preserved at all costs. In the works since August, Jackson Street wants to open a 200-room hotel wrapped around Johnson Bank at the corner of Wisconsin and Milwaukee.

Carow and Flaherty plan to use $50 million from foreign investors to build the hotel. The project could create 350-450 temporary construction jobs and 200 permanent hospitality jobs.

The LLC’s plan was unveiled on Dec. 13 it consisted of a gleaming glass facade on Wisconsin Avenue and a modern multi-story tower behind the bank on Milwaukee Street. The HPC asked the developers to go back to the drawing board and incorporate the historical facades of the buildings into their hotel plans.

On Monday, they returned with a plan presented last Thursday to the public and endorsed by Barrett. Instead of modern glass on Wisconsin Avenue, the plans show a complete restoration of the late 19th century facade of the Downtown Books building. That pleased the commission, but they were not as happy with the redesign on Milwaukee Street.

That portion of the development would completely demolish the buildings between Johnson Bank and a restored building on the corner of Michigan owned by local architect David Uihlein. Some of the materials from the existing buildings would be recycled into the new hotel and it would be designed to blend in with the surroundings. However, the developers want the entire hotel on the property line, which worried many in attendance.

Uihlein supports the hotel project, but wants the tower setback, “to provide for the unity of the facades on the street.” He added that pushing the tower back would still allow for three stories at the property line, which is considered the maximum height for pedestrian lighting and comfort.

Those in favor of the development didn’t stick to the issue of the facade or historical relevance, instead they desired approval of the project for the jobs it would bring.

“We have a job emergency in Milwaukee and we need good jobs,” Austin Thompson said, a representative of Good Jobs Livable Neighborhoods. “Milwaukee doesn’t belong to the past, it belongs to the future.”

So the debate continues. Are historical considerations above the considerations of the economy?  Weigh in with your thoughts.

If you would like to see the buildings for yourself, click here for a video tour.


3 thoughts on “Milwaukee Historical Commission allows demolition with a catch

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