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Milwaukee library waiting on next chapter

By James Briggs

Milwaukee is counting on developers to turn an east-side public library branch into a catalyst for neighborhood growth.

The city has issued a request for proposals, seeking ideas for redevelopment of the Milwaukee Public Library’s one-story East Library at 1910 E. North Ave. The deadline for submission is Aug. 15.

City and library officials envision the 43-year-old library becoming a multistory building that could include housing or a hotel.

The plan is similar to a construction project under way for the Villard Square branch at North 35th Street and West Villard Avenue. That building, slated to be completed in October, includes first-floor space for the library and three levels of apartments above. The $11 million project is being paid for through a mix of private and city money, as well as federal tax credits.

As for the east-side branch, “What else might come above us, that’s up to the developer,” said Sandy Rusch Walton, a spokeswoman for the library.

Because of the library’s prime location, the city anticipates most of the cost will be covered by a developer, said Jeff Fleming, a city spokesman. The city has received several inquiries, Fleming said, but no proposals so far.

Alderman Nik Kovac, who serves on the library’s board, and whose district includes the East Library, said the slate was wide open for a variety of proposals.

“We have a preference for the best proposal,” he said. “We want a realistically financed design that is great for the library and great for North Avenue.”

A hotel, he added, would have great potential because the neighborhood is in desperate need of one within walking distance of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“Between downtown and up to the Shorewood border is exactly the kind of place visitors would want to stay,” Kovac said. “People are always going to want to stay downtown, but increasingly travelers want to stay in neighborhoods.”

But Milwaukee developer Bill Orenstein, founding principal of Williams Development Corp., said he was not certain a hotel would be the right business to go above the library. Orenstein owns the downtown Residence Inn by Marriott.

“Sometimes we get people coming here who are in town because of UWM or the hospital now, so maybe that’s true,” Orenstein said. “The problem with real estate is whenever there’s a void, people rush in to fill it. I haven’t seen that with hotels (on the east side).”

Orenstein said he had discussed with city officials a potential project involving the East Library for more than five years but didn’t know whether he would submit a proposal.

“I don’t know if I’m still interested because I haven’t studied the situation,” he said. “We think it’s a great location … but when all the smoke clears, I don’t know what we’re going to propose, or if we’re even going to.”

The least likely proposal to gain support, Kovac said, would be any plan involving retail in the library building.

There’s a chance someone could offer a surprising solution, he said, but the city wants housing, a hotel or office space.

“In this case, the retail is the library, so we don’t want another piece of retail distracting from the library or taking away from the frontage,” Kovac said. “We want the library to be thought of as the neighborhood bookstore.”

A successful proposal, he said, would have to satisfy the city, the library board and the building’s neighbors.

The neighbors might be the easiest to please. Any design that would let the library operate more efficiently — and stay open for more hours — would have a great advantage, Kovac said. The East Library is closed Sundays and doesn’t open until 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Cutting down from two entrances to one and developing a more energy-efficient building would help the branch stay open longer, Kovac said.

Otherwise, he said, the project is wide open to a developer’s imagination, as long as the library remains the centerpiece.

“We’re in a funding battle for all government services, but especially libraries,” Kovac said. “We need to do something to continue to provide reasonable library hours. What’s the point of having great information if the library’s not open?”

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