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Milwaukee alderman fights Dover school project

A playground is empty Thursday next to the vacant Dover Street School in Milwaukee. Developers are eyeing the school and adjacent playground space for apartments, but several neighbors and an alderman are unhappy with the plans. (Staff photos by Kevin Harnack)

A playground is empty Thursday next to the vacant Dover Street School in Milwaukee. Developers are eyeing the school and adjacent playground space for apartments, but several neighbors and an alderman are unhappy with the plans. (Staff photos by Kevin Harnack)

A former Bay View school would remain vacant, at least temporarily, if Alderman Tony Zielinski can sway his colleagues to kill a redevelopment proposal.

Milwaukee Public Schools in November sought redevelopment proposals for the former Dover Street School, built in the 1890s. The district’s board of directors in December approved a design submitted by Dover LLC, a team led by Milwaukee-based Maures Development Group LLC.

Dover LLC’s proposal included renovating the former school, at 619 E. Dover St., into 43 apartments primarily for teachers and constructing three buildings to bring the number of apartments to 110.

Those additional buildings are a deal-breaker, Zielinski said.

The district’s desire for a teacher-oriented development, including additional housing, is spelled out in its request for proposals, but Zielinski said he was not consulted when that RFP was drafted. When he was told about the plans, he said, he understood the project to be limited to renovation.

When he read the RFP later, Zielinski said, he was dismayed at the inclusion of new construction. When he learned the details of Dover LLC’s proposal, he said, he was stunned.

“I almost fell out of my chair,” Zielinski said. “Just imagine if you live in that neighborhood, and you’re used to seeing all that open space.”

St. Lucas Lutheran School students and neighborhood children use a playground on the property, and St. Lucas teachers and parishioners use a parking lot.

Plopping down three buildings would destroy the neighborhood atmosphere, Zielinski said.

He said Dover LLC proposed a compromise that would limit the new construction to one building and reduce the total number of apartments to 90. But that, Zielinski said, is not good enough.

Now, he said, he is convinced the developer wants a profit more than what is right for the neighborhood.

“If they could squeeze 200 units on that property,” Zielinski said, “they’d do it.”

Jeff Wagner, a Bay View resident and retired MPS teacher, said he is worried the project is straying from its original intention to buoy young teachers. The Dover redevelopment would have been a “ray of hope” for young teachers who need additional support, he said.

The larger scope of the project, Wagner said, makes him doubt that much effort will be put into attracting teacher-tenants.

“It’s a moneymaker. It’s not that you care about teachers,” he said. “It’s not that you care about the neighborhood.”

The developer does care, said Melissa Goins, president of Maures Development.

The roughly $18 million project needs new construction, she said, but the development team scaled back its plans after Zielinski and neighbors objected. Ninety apartments is the line between a feasible project and one that would fail, she said.

Both phases of the project will be marketed toward teachers, Goins said, and the designs include such elements as a copy room and lounge area for developing lesson plans to promote retention of teachers in the city.

“This is bigger than Bay View,” she said. “This is bigger than the 14th aldermanic district. This is about stabilizing an educational system that needs help.”

Several neighbors living near the vacant Dover Street School have posted signs supporting St. Lucas Church and School’s intention to buy the vacant Milwaukee school.

Several neighbors living near the vacant Dover Street School have posted signs supporting St. Lucas Church and School’s intention to buy the vacant Milwaukee school.

One of the partners on the development team is Baltimore-based Seawall Development Co., which has built comparable projects in Maryland.

It is the involvement of such a company that gave Dover LLC an advantage, said Ted Matkom, market president for Oregon, Wis.-based Gorman and Co. Inc., which responded to the RFP for the redevelopment. Gorman had proposed about 70 units between renovation and new construction, he said, and had planned to use traditional financing for the new construction and low-income housing tax credits from the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority to help pay for the renovation.

But those tax credits carry requirements that tenants make less than 60 percent of Milwaukee County’s median income, Matkom said, and based on the average MPS salary, most teachers would not qualify.

“You really had to do a market-rate, non-WHEDA project,” he said, “and we couldn’t make the numbers work there.”

Goins said her development team plans to use traditional financing for the project.

Regardless of financing, Matkom said, a project based solely on renovation, which Zielinski said he would support, would not work. The site’s $350,000 price tag and requirements to maintain parking and playground amenities for St. Lucas, Matkom said, create a burden that new construction must carry.

“It put you in a box,” he said, “in terms of what you can do there.”

Zielinski is not sure what he wants to happen on the site, but he said he knows what he does not want. He said he will vote against the project if it makes it to the April 22 Common Council meeting.

“All they care about is making money,” Zielinski said, “and forget about the neighbor.”

About Beth Kevit

Beth Kevit is the Milwaukee city beat reporter and also covers real estate. She can be reached at beth.kevit@dailyreporter.com or 414-225-1820.

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