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Milwaukee Marriott victory worries preservationists

By Marie Rohde

The Milwaukee Common Council voted 13-2 Wednesday to raze five buildings in a downtown historic district to make way for a proposed Marriott Hotel. (Rendering courtesy of Jackson Street Management LLC)

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is so enthralled with Milwaukee that the organization has listed the city as one of the top travel destinations in the country.

“Isn’t it ironic that you’re tearing down some of what those visitors are coming to see so you can build a hotel for them to stay in?” asked Genell Scheurell, the director of the national trust’s Midwest office in Chicago.

The Common Council voted 13-2 on Wednesday to let five buildings in a downtown historic district be demolished so that a Marriott hotel can be built there. The vote seemingly ended the debate that pitted the city’s urban heritage against progress.

The vote overrode a Historic Preservation Commission decision that would have the developer raze the buildings but require saving the facades of the historic buildings on East Wisconsin Avenue and provide a 15-foot setback on North Milwaukee Street.

The Milwaukee developer, Jackson Street Management LLC, went along with the facade decision but called the setback requirement a deal killer for the $50 million hotel.

The clash is not likely to be the last in Milwaukee, Alderman Bob Bauman predicted last week. Just six months ago, the owners of a historic building in the same block proposed razing that building to make way for an office building.

Critics say the developers bulldozed the city’s preservation commission.

“It went through quicker than an application to build your front porch,” said Alderman Nik Kovac, who opposed the approval. “The Historic Preservation Commission was unusually expeditious and unusually permissive.”

Evan Zeppos, a consultant who is the spokesman for Jackson Street Management, repeatedly said the commission was delaying the process and thwarting a proposal that would bring jobs and tax money to the city.

Not so, said the commissioners, who argued they saw no formal plans until December.

Mayor Tom Barrett, who entered the debate as a strong supporter of quick action on the proposal, said he does not believe the commission delayed the project.

“What concerned me was that some people close to the commission said that the proposal could be held up for a year,” Barrett said. “That was a nonstarter to any discussion.”

The city and Jackson Street reached an agreement that demolition would not begin until there is proof of financing for construction, Barrett said.

Barrett, who appoints the seven members of the commission, said he supports a change to the historic preservation ordinance that would let the commission consider economic development and job creation.

“I think that could have changed things,” he said. “We are looking at the ordinances that other cities around the country have adopted.”

But Scheurell said preservation and progress can coexist.

“There are some cities,” she said, “that use historic preservation to achieve the growth and development that Milwaukee is searching for.”

Chicago, she said, is an example.

“In the loop,” Scheurell said, “there are gorgeous new buildings next to equally gorgeous historic buildings that make an interesting streetscape.”

Scheurell pointed to Milwaukee’s Third Ward as a vibrant example of preservation and development.

“It’s the most vibrant part of your downtown,” she said.

Paul Jakubovich, a city preservation officer, said while it may appear that much of Milwaukee is designated as historic, only about 1 percent of the properties have historic designation. Many of those properties, he said, are on the east side of downtown as well as on the city’s east and near south sides.

Scheurell said that is more than most cities have.

“Milwaukee has so much more fabulous historic architecture than most cities,” she said. “I think most people don’t recognize what they have.”

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