Notably absent from last week‘s special meeting on the future of the Milwaukee’s Historic Preservation Commission was Alderman Robert Bauman, the commission’s most outspoken member.
The alderman said he is considering whether he should continue to serve on the commission.
“There’s no sense in staying if the commission ceases to perform its core function,” said Bauman, adding he has made no decision on his future role with the commission.
The commission in general, and Bauman in particular, are smarting from the Marriott Hotel campaign to bulldoze five buildings in the downtown historic district. The commission, he said, was the victim of a public relations campaign of misinformation.
“They folded like a house of cards,” said Bauman of the commission. “The only way you could blunt a campaign like that is if everyone stood together.”
The developers of the project, Jackson Street Management LLC, criticized the commission, saying they were delaying the $50 million hotel project that would bring hundreds of jobs and $2.2 million in taxes to the city.
Randy Bryant, chairman of the commission, called the developer’s campaign unfair.
“The buildings are in an historic district and the plans were not compatible with the ordinance (created by the Common Council),” said Bryant.
Mayor Tom Barrett agreed that the commission was following the ordinance, which created the Historic Preservation Commission and set forth rules for what it governs, but said it’s time to look at the 30-year-old law and see if it still reflects what the community wants.
The commission approved the razing of the buildings in record time with only two conditions — the facade of the portion of the hotel on Wisconsin Avenue be recreated and that the portion on Milwaukee Street be set back 15 feet.
The developers appealed the setback requirement. It took slightly more than a month from the time the plans were introduced until the Common Council gave the developers everything they wanted, including ditching the setback requirement.
“Nothing in government ever happens that fast,” said James Draeger, the deputy preservation officer for the Wisconsin Historical Society.
After the Common Council vote, Mayor Tom Barrett said the preservationists should be happy that the facade on Wisconsin Avenue was being constructed.
But Bryant said the facade is a mistake.
“We would have been better off tearing down the old buildings and putting up a good quality contemporary design,” Bryant said.
Richard Moe, former president for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, referred to the practice of preserving the facade and destroying a building as a “facade-ectomy.”
“It never works,” Moe said. “That sort of thing almost always looks out of place, out of balance.”
The commission was characterized as an unelected body standing in the way of progress.
“This is not a vigilante committee,” Draeger said. “It’s not about approving what they like and disapproving what they don’t like. It’s about upholding an ordinance based on established criteria.”
Bauman said that critics questioned the authority of the unelected members of the commission in this matter but ignored other commissions that, in reality, have far more power.
“We have an unelected fire and police commission that dominates public safety issues,” said Bauman. “The mayor and the Common Council do not even have a vote on who is appointed chief of police.”
Bauman said the flurry of criticism by talk radio and other media divided the Common Council and the commission.
“You can only be called a moron so often before you say enough is enough,” Bauman said.