Hotel May Replace Five Historic Milwaukee Buildings
By Margaret Foster | Online Only | Dec. 3, 2010
In downtown Milwaukee, a new hotel may replace the city's last intact 19th- and early 20th-century commercial block—a development that could subordinate the city's historic preservation ordinance.
The five buildings are part of a National Register Historic District and a locally designated historic district. Nonetheless, developer Wave Development LLC may be able to tear them down because Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett backs the $50 million hotel project, tentatively planned as a Marriott.
The buildings have been protected since the late 1980s, but the owners of historic buildings can demolish them if the Common Council approves the owner's appeal of the Historic Preservation Commission's ruling.
"It's a dangerous precedent," says Dawn McCarthy, president of Milwaukee Preservation Alliance Inc. "This would be the most egregious lack of consideration for the professionals that are on the Historic Preservation Commission. It essentially would indicate that our ordinance is meaningless."
In addition, McCarthy points out, the city's Downtown Comprehensive Area Plan Update urges restoration of historic buildings: "Locally designated contributing historic buildings should be retained and redeveloped in accordance with local preservation requirements," according to the plan. "The Common Council, if they approve the request to demolish those buildings, would also be showing that the Downtown Area Plan would be meaningless," McCarthy says.
There's a more appropriate site for the $50 million hotel in an empty lot across the river, says the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance. The alliance, along with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, supports the project as long as it fully utilizes the existing buildings.
But those buildings are in "bad shape," according to Evan Zeppos, spokesperson for the developer. "They have been sign altered over time. … These are building that are in extremely bad condition. Much of it is marked by graffiti. Some have broken windows. Those buildings really hurt the rest of the area. They've been neglected for years."
Zeppos points out that a new hotel would revitalize the area and generate tax income for the city. Wave Development LLC, which does not yet own the buildings, requested a certificate of appropriateness to demolish the five historic buildings and build the hotel. On Dec. 13 the city's Historic Preservation Commission will deny, approve, or delay making a decision on that certificate. The developer may then appeal to other city departments and the Common Council.
For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.