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City, county question UWM land sale

Dustin Block
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Wauwatosa’s historic Eschweiler Buildings would be converted into a boutique hotel and restaurant as part of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s plans for a new engineering campus.

But plans to restore the buildings, designed in the early 1900s by architect Alexander Eschweiler, concerned city and county officials wondering why the university wanted to develop what appeared to be commercial buildings. UW-Milwaukee is attempting to buy 89 acres from Milwaukee County to build an engineering campus and research park.

John Weishan Jr., member of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, questioned if the university plans to quickly resell the property for commercial development. He said he wants to prevent UW-Milwaukee from profiting off the land by ways other than developing an engineering school.

“I’m concerned they (the university) are more interested in land speculation than a commitment to building an engineering school,” he said.

Tom Luljak, UWM’s vice chancellor for public affairs, said the hotel and restaurant provision in the contract is misunderstood. The Eschweiler Buildings would be restored as part of the deal. Because they are not suitable for scientific use, they may be used to create a hotel and restaurant for visiting faculty and business people, he said.

“We were looking for ways to use those buildings in a manner sensitive to the historic nature of the structures,” he said.

Luljak said the university has no interest in commercial development on the site.

“The land is too valuable for that,” he said.

The Eschweiler Buildings on the Milwaukee County Grounds were designed to serve as the School for Agriculture and Domestic Economy. After the school closed, Milwaukee County used the buildings for various purposes, according to Nancy Welch, Wauwatosa’s director of community development.

Several developers proposed restoring the buildings during the past 20 years, Welch said, but no one reached an agreement.

UW-Milwaukee has offered $11.8 million for the county property. The County Board’s Economic and Community Development Committee will consider raising the sale price to $13.5 million at its April 13 meeting.

The Milwaukee Common Council opposes the land sale. The council voted in January to lobby for UW-Milwaukee’s new engineering school to be in downtown Milwaukee. Mayor Tom Barrett signed the resolution.

But UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Carlos Santiago told the council March 25 he opposes building the engineering school downtown.

Milwaukee Alderman Robert Bauman said Santiago’s statement forces the city to lobby against the proposal. He said locating the engineering school in Wauwatosa is urban sprawl, and the decision was made without consulting with stakeholders in the region.

Bauman compared the debate to the decision to build Miller Park outside of downtown Milwaukee. The decision was made before a downtown site was given a fair shot.

“This is not something you can relocate when wiser heads prevail,” Bauman said.

But Luljak said the Wauwatosa site’s proximity to the Medical College of Wisconsin and other research institutions made the campus a natural fit for the area. The engineering school also is expected to foster development at the Michael J. Cudahy Innovation Park that will generate taxes and create jobs, he said.

He said UW-Milwaukee during the next two years is committed to investing in the city of Milwaukee at least $100 million, including money for a new school of public health and an addition to the university’s water research institute.

Patrick Curley, Barrett’s chief of staff, said the mayor’s office supports the Common Council’s position of locating the campus downtown but does not want to jeopardize Gov. Jim Doyle’s commitment in his 2009-11 budget to invest in UW-Milwaukee.

“We can’t afford to lose $240 million over, for lack of a better term, a public pissing match between the city and UW-Milwaukee,” Curley said.

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