Hotel May Replace Five Historic Milwaukee Buildings

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.

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Submitted by WJM at: December 29, 2010
We have a whole area of vacant land where the Park East freeway stood which is a bloody eyesore! Keep the integrity of the historic district intact and place the hotel in Park East. Here is another idea put the hotel between Boston Store and the Hyatt. I bet I could come up with 2 or 3 more sites if I drove thru downtown right now! Milwaukee has lost too many great buildings, ie. Chicago Northwestern station, Milwaukee Road station, movie "palaces", need I go on?

Submitted by JLD at: December 8, 2010
These buildings are locally designated, which is supposed to afford them the highest form of preservation protection. In addition to blasting a hole in a local plan and ordinance, approving the COA rewards a common development idea that historic = impediment. This is not an impediment; it is a design challenge. Integrating old with new is not a radical idea.

Submitted by Joy at: December 7, 2010
Would it help to email the city council, the mayor and other city departments? United we stand and divided we fall! Let's save these buildings from the landfill which is good for preservation and its green!!

Submitted by eagl3s at: December 6, 2010
Just how many 'old' buildings can one city afford to protect? There comes a point when preservation must give way to progress. I believe now is the time for these 5 buildings. Respectfully,

Submitted by Ratskelter at: December 6, 2010
Oh nooo... Not again... Learn from Boston... When they blew out a block of architectually interesting if slightly shabby buildings for the Hotel Commonwealth, a luxury hotel backed in part by Boston University. The workingclass aspect was lost. And genetricification is now boundless.

Submitted by SocratesChildren at: December 4, 2010
Historic preservation unfortunately rests too heavily on the market. A long-term investor can hold (and allow to deteriorate) any property. While the investor cannot tear down the building; nature's forces eventually will. The problem here is not preservation, rather it is the policy of the City to encourage long-term investment over development. But while doing that the City allows the owner to call the shots - when to replace the building. Which may have more to do with the owner's taxable income for the year than with a sound development plan. What is to prevent the owner from declaring after obtaining a COA and after the historic buildings are rubble, that "business conditions" do not warrant investment at this time? Instant parking lot will of course be the cure for what ails the investor. Long term investment is seen at its worst in cases like this. The City makes a low valuation (lowest is for parking lots) and the long-term investor gets by with minimal property taxes. A valuation appropriate for the land and values in the neighborhood would encourage selling to someone interested in proper use.

Submitted by Brian at: December 3, 2010
I think the article fails to point out that the construction of a modern highrise will destroy the historic coherancy of the block, ie. the value of the buildings is that they complete a street wall.

Submitted by Erin at: December 3, 2010
I will have to counter Mr. Zeppos' comment and say that I just walked away from my lunch at Tai Maki next door to this section of buildings on Wisconsin Ave. and did not see a single piece of graffiti and did not take notice of any broken windows. This is an inaccurate depiction of the location and it gives the reader a much more negative image of the block than what is really there. Also, why is this text highlighted?