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Demolition possible for crumbling Milwaukee garage

By James Briggs

A parking ramp that has been closed since February because of structural issues is reflected Wednesday in the door of a Firestone Complete Auto Care at 601 W. Wells St. in Milwaukee. The repair shop, which occupies space on the lower level of the parking ramp, continued to conduct business until last week. (Staff photos by Kevin Harnack)

Milwaukee’s Department of Neighborhood Services is losing patience with the owner of a downtown parking garage, which includes a ground-floor auto repair shop.

The city has shut down both the six-story garage, built in 1972, and a Firestone Complete Auto Care Store at 601 W. Wells St. because of concerns over the integrity of the building. The city closed the parking garage in February, but let Firestone continue operating until last week.

Soon, the city could seek court intervention to force demolition at the expense of the owner, Dallas-based TTOW Properties LLC.

“We’ve got significant cracking of beams that could cause collapse directly into the Firestone facility itself,” DNS Commissioner Art Dahlberg said. “So, in the best interest of everyone concerned, we issued an order to evacuate Firestone.”

A city inspection revealed structural problems in July 2010, resulting in an order directing TTOW to hire an engineer to study the problem and create a plan for making necessary improvements.

The company, though, didn’t give the city a report until a year later, Dahlberg said, and even then the report was incomplete.

“They didn’t accomplish the things they were told to accomplish,” Dahlberg said.

Fred Baker, who is listed in public documents as the top executive for TTOW, said Wednesday the company was trying to resolve the city’s concerns.

“We’re getting bids on all that right now,” Baker said. He declined further comment.

TTOW is an affiliate of Parking Co. of America Inc., which, according to the company’s website, manages more than 170 parking garages and hauls in annual gross revenue of more than $15 million.

The company, though, seems unwilling to invest any of that money into its Milwaukee property, Dahlberg said.

The city of Milwaukee could seek court intervention to force demolition of the building and parking structure because of structural issues.

“I think the fact that it took a year for them to give us an engineering report tells us they weren’t strongly motivated to try and do the repairs on the property,” Dahlberg said. “They’ve identified that they feel as though the building is a losing proposition for them right now.

“As a result, we need to protect the safety of the pedestrians by taking the actions we’ve taken.”

The city tried multiple strategies to persuade TTOW to fix the building, Dahlberg said, including keeping Firestone open as long as possible.

“We tried to develop a way to keep Firestone in business in hopes that, as a tenant, they would be putting pressure on ownership of the building to do the right thing,” Dahlberg said.

John Piraino, a lead technician for Firestone, said the company was looking for a new downtown site.

“The problem,” he said, “is trying to find somewhere they can move into or a building they can take down and put a new Firestone up.”

TTOW has until Dec. 11 to prove it is taking action to either repair or demolish its building, Dahlberg said.

“Depending on what action they take or don’t take,” he said, “we will prosecute that in court.”

Demolition would create a vacant lot at Sixth and Wells streets, an area many visitors see upon entering the city because of the lot’s proximity to freeways and Frontier Airlines Center.

“We don’t like losing buildings,” Dahlberg said. “We strongly encourage property owners to maintain their buildings.

“But when you have buildings where concrete is falling off to the point we have here — and when we brought it to their attention, they can’t put resources into it — it leaves very, very few choices.”

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