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Marriott debate raises questions about Preservation Commission

By Marie Rohde

The hullabaloo surrounding the proposed $50 million Marriott Hotel has caused Milwaukee’s Historic Preservation Commission to do some soul searching.

On Wednesday they will meet and will likely question whether they should disband.

“If we have no power, what’s the point?” asked longtime commission member Matt Jarosz. “It just becomes a superficial exercise.”

This may be a case of “you can’t fire me, I quit.”

Alderman Terry Witkowski, amid the uproar of allegations that the commission was thwarting badly needed redevelopment and killing jobs, said recently that he would call for a re-examination of the commission’s authority.

The council has not yet scheduled a meeting for that discussion.

Developers of the 200-room hotel that will be located at East Wisconsin Avenue and North Milwaukee Street will raze five buildings that are part of the historic district. Before bringing in the wrecking ball, the developers had to obtain a certificate of appropriateness from the commission.

The developers, Jackson Street Management LLC, said the commission was deliberately throwing up roadblocks, jeopardizing their ability to get financial backing for the project.

Not so, said commission members, notably Alderman Robert Bauman, who criticized the developers for hiring a public relations firm, a lobbyist and lawyers before filing their plans.

Jarosz, a member of the commission for 16 years, said the self-examination the commission will undergo when it meets is not just the result of the Marriott controversy. The hotel proposal is a good example of problems the commission has faced.

“If people want to man up and get lawyers when dealing with us, it is kind of tough,” Jarosz said. “Many times people come in and are cooperative.”

Jarosz said he has gotten calls from members of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The national group, he said, is concerned that Milwaukee’s commitment to preserving historic buildings – or at least to the process of preserving them – is under threat.

“I suspect that in the next couple weeks we will have a fairly serious talk with the mayor (Tom Barrett) about where we are at,” said Jarosz.

Barrett appoints the members of the commission but has strongly supported quick approval of the Marriott project.

Marie Rohde is a staff writer at The Daily Reporter. She covers Milwaukee and its government.

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