A political fight is erupting over the proposal to raze five historic downtown Milwaukee buildings to make way for a Marriott Hotel.
Thomas DeMuth, a lawyer for the developer, Jackson Street Management LLC, has demanded Alderman Robert Bauman not participate when the city’s Historic Preservation Commission considers the proposal, the first hurdle for the project. Bauman, a member of the commission, has been the project’s most outspoken opponent.
DeMuth made a broad open records demand, including a request for Bauman’s e-mail correspondence on the topic of the hotel. According to the open records request, Bauman has “a conflict of interest and has lost his ability to act in an impartial manner” because of his actions relating to the project.
Bauman said he believes the planners behind the hotel are trying to silence his opposition.
“They are trying to intimidate us,” Bauman said.
The proposal to build a 200-room Marriott at Wisconsin Avenue and Milwaukee Street has garnered considerable support. Mayor Tom Barrett and Common Council President Willie Hines have come out in favor of the $45 million to $50 million hotel, as have a number of other political, civic and business leaders.
Bauman took a swing at city political leaders favoring the Marriott proposal, saying their support flies in the face of a $150,000 blueprint for downtown redevelopment the city adopted only a month ago. That blueprint includes protection for the downtown historic district, where the buildings targeted for demolition are.
On Nov. 23, Bauman introduced a resolution calling on the Common Council to rescind the planning document in light of the broad support for the Marriott.
“At the very least, they need to be intellectually honest about what they are doing,” said Bauman, noting the plan was three years in the making and the subject of numerous public meetings. “They’re just ignoring it. They should at least be honest and say they are going to react to projects as they come in the front door.”
Central to the dispute is the City’s Historic Preservation Ordinance.
The five buildings the developers want to raze were built between 1864 and 1899. While they are part of a district designated as historic by the city, the developers contend the structures have little historic significance. The new hotel would generate $2.27 million in tax money annually, require no city investment and stimulate other development in the flagging part of downtown, according to the development team.
While the historic district designation is not an absolute protection for historic properties, it is a hurdle for the developers. Before allowing the demolition of the buildings, the commission must grant a certificate of appropriateness for a project.
The commission is scheduled to discuss the proposal Dec. 13.
In a letter to the city attributed to DeMuth, the attorney demanded a prompt decision, while acknowledging the ordinance gives the commission as long as a year to make a ruling.
Evan Zeppos, a spokesman for the developers, said the worst-case scenario for the developers is the commission chooses not to vote. He said the developers have assembled a building team and plan to break ground in March.
“We can appeal to the Common Council if they deny the request or if they approve it with conditions but not if they delay it again,” Zeppos said. “They delayed it once. I don’t know if they can do it again.”
While a two-thirds vote of the Common Council can overrule the commission, the council must have good cause, Bauman said. The council must find the commission’s action would “preclude any and all reasonable use of the property” or cause serious hardship for the owner, provided the hardship is not “self-created.”
“If they are getting $15,000 a month from tenants, how can they have been denied reasonable use?” Bauman said. “They have several tenants.”
Zeppos said the buildings are not fully leased and that at least building is empty.