The plan to open a restaurant on the Milwaukee lakefront site of the former Pieces of Eight is poised to move forward even though it probably violates the Wisconsin Constitution.
“We are not going to keep them from reopening the restaurant with the current footprint as long as they don’t put a high-rise on it,” said John Lunz, president of Preserve our Parks, a Milwaukee nonprofit organization.
The vacant restaurant is on an earthen pier built in the late 1950s between what is now the Milwaukee Art Museum and Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin. The Pieces of Eight restaurant was built in the mid-1960s by Specialty Restaurants of Wisconsin Inc., which sold its lease for the property to Michael Cudahy.
Cudahy and Joe Bartolotta, owner of Bartolotta Restaurant Group LLC, are seeking approval from the state and the Port of Milwaukee to renovate the structure and reopen a restaurant.
The Milwaukee Board of Harbor Commissioners will consider the renovation plans Thursday. The board’s Finance & Personnel Committee unanimously approved the project Tuesday. If the board approves the plan, the project needs only a building permit to clear the city’s approval process, said Port Director Eric Reinelt.
But the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources also must approve the project based on whether it satisfies the Wisconsin Constitution’s Public Trust Doctrine. The doctrine requires shoreline land be used for businesses related to waterways or for public recreation.
The state attorney general’s office in 1987 issued an opinion that private restaurants such as Pieces of Eight do not comply with the doctrine.
A DNR attorney, in an October letter to the city, indicated the department would consider approving the project, even if it doesn’t satisfy the doctrine, if the restaurant ceases to operate when the lease expires in 2018.
DNR officials involved in the review were unavailable for comment.
The constitution permits shoreline restaurants if they serve sailors or beach-goers, but a destination such as Pieces of Eight is different, said Bill Lynch, a Preserve our Parks board member and chairman of the Milwaukee Lakefront Development Advisory Commission, which was created by the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County.
“From the overall nature and character of the downtown lakefront, which is part of what the LDAC looks at,” Lynch said, “I think there is hesitance to fill in the parklike aspect of the lakefront with buildings and single-use structures.”
But the Preserve our Parks organizers who lobbied the DNR to review the project under the Public Trust Doctrine do not want the restaurant torn down now, Lunz said. The group opposed an earlier proposal to build a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences on the site.
Lunz said he’s willing to live with the restaurant until the lease expires, even if it violates the rules protecting the lakefront.
“Once UWM backed out,” he said, “then it was just a matter of what’s good in the long term and what’s practical to do in the short term.”
Lynch agreed, saying the restaurant has been grandfathered for decades and, because the structure stands, it would be better to let it operate as a restaurant than to demolish it and leave the site unimproved for nine more years.
“Maybe if we had had a Lakefront Development Advisory Commission, we wouldn’t have had a Pieces of Eight restaurant there,” he said, “and there it is.”