Renovation of the former Pieces of Eight restaurant on Milwaukee’s lakefront could get government approval without a hearing despite arguments that such a public project needs public input.
Michael Cudahy, who holds the lease (PDF) on the property along the Lake Michigan shoreline, and Joe Bartolotta, owner of Bartolotta Restaurant Group LLC, plan to fix up the decrepit building and open a restaurant.
“When it’s finished, I think all of you know me well enough to know it will be first class,” Cudahy told the Milwaukee Board of Harbor Commissioners Finance & Personnel Committee on Tuesday.
Cudahy and Bartolotta were the only speakers at the meeting before the committee endorsed the project.
But Gregory Francis Bird, a designer who lives in Milwaukee, said he wants the vacant downtown building put back into use but not without more public involvement in the planning.
“Before any additional funds are expended by the leaseholder in such a public position, place, venue along the lakefront,” Bird said, “the leaseholder needs to get the public on board with the design.”
The Port of Milwaukee, which owns the property and still must approve the renovation, is not required to hold a public hearing. If the port approves the project, Cudahy and Bartolotta need only a Milwaukee building permit to begin construction.
The property is an earthen pier built in the late 1950s between what is now the Milwaukee Art Museum and Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin. Cudahy acquired the lease for $1 million from Specialty Restaurants of Wisconsin Inc., which operated the former Pieces of Eight.
Cudahy originally planned to let the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee use the land to build a new School of Freshwater Sciences. But the university backed away from that plan in early September because of opposition to building the school at that location.
A public meeting in May at Milwaukee City Hall for the school project attracted enough people to fill the room.
The new restaurant project plan will go to the Milwaukee Board of Harbor Commissioners for a vote on Thursday.
Cudahy, who brought draft black-and-white elevation sketches showing the new building’s design, said he will have complete renderings to release after the Board of Harbor Commissioners votes on the plan. He said he does not want to distribute renderings until the design is complete.
“When we release the renderings, we’ll release the renderings,” he said, “and that’s what it will look like.”
Bartolotta said the design for the renovated Pieces of Eight building will mirror the existing building. The proposed project will keep the same building footprint and will not be taller than the original building.
“The more people you ask, the more opinions you get,” Bartolotta said, “and finding consensus on something like this can be challenging. So we’re taking a benign approach.”
Bird said the former Pieces of Eight restaurant, built in the mid 1960s, is a unique structure and he wants its character preserved. He said if the building will be substantially changed, he might request the Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission designate the structure for protection.
He said he wants to save the arrangement of windows and doors in the building and its two-level character, which he said has a “prairie look to it, a la Frank Lloyd Wright.”
“I think there will be hearings,” he said, “because it is such a prominent building.”