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Aldermen want buffer for history researchers

Sean Ryan
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Three Milwaukee aldermen are trying to push city researchers out of the development department to preserve the integrity of the historic designation process.

The aldermen want Milwaukee’s two preservation staffers removed from Milwaukee’s Department of City Development so the researchers become independent, said Alderman Robert Bauman, who is sponsoring an ordinance with aldermen Nik Kovac and Tony Zielinski.

“I don’t think it’s going to change the weight given to their recommendation,” said Bauman, a member of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. “It will give us the assurance that their recommendations are unfettered by any bureaucratic politics.”

The two city employees research buildings recommended for historic protections and provide reports to the Historic Preservation Commission. City law lets decisions about historic preservation be based on both historic significance and the potential benefits of new development.

Milwaukee’s historic preservation planners are Carlen Hatala and Paul Jakubovich. DCD spokeswoman Andrea Rowe Richards said neither Hatala nor Jakubovich will comment about the proposal.

The proposed ordinance would move the two researchers to the city clerk’s office, where no one will try to influence their research or findings, Bauman said. The Milwaukee Common Council’s Zoning Neighborhood and Development Committee will consider the proposal Thursday.

Gail Fitch, a Milwaukeean who has attended almost every HPC meeting in the past seven years, said the idea is worth considering.

“It sometimes is the case that the two things — development and preservation —sometimes seem to be at  odds with each other,” she said, “and the way it sometimes can be set up is it appears there can be some pressure.”

The Department of City Development responded to questions about the proposal in an e-mail deferring the matter to policymakers.

Bauman said he has considered moving the city’s historic researchers out of DCD for a long time, but a recommendation at last month’s Historic Preservation Commission meeting regarding the Hide House project brought the issue to a head. At that meeting, DCD recommended a portion of the Hide House building, a former tannery, should not gain historic protections. But a city preservation researcher at the meeting said the entire complex can be considered historically significant.

Bauman said he is concerned pressure from DCD management causes historic researchers to hold back their true thoughts on some properties’ historic values. He said a better approach is to split the services so DCD and historic preservation researchers can give separate opinions on each project.

“We just want to make sure, as I say, that historic preservation commission staff have the right to say what they think,” Bauman said.

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