Jeramey Jannene

Gallun Tannery Site Presents Opportunity and Challenges

By - Jan 26th, 2011 01:43 pm
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Aerial Shot of Gallun Tannery Complex

Aerial Shot of Gallun Tannery Complex

Milwaukee is in the process of losing a historic landmark, the remaining tannery buildings of the former A.F. Gallun & Sons Company tannery are being demolished on the city’s Lower East Side. The buildings once housed one of the city’s many tanning businesses, but in a few weeks all that will remain is the redeveloped office building on the south side of North Water Street (Gallun Tannery Row condominiums). The last of the large Milwaukee River tanneries will soon be gone, like Trostel and Pfister and Vogel before it.

A.F. Gallun Tannery in 1978

A.F. Gallun Tannery in 1978

The complex, which has sat empty since 1993, at one time included a number more buildings surrounding the few structures that remain. Those structures were demolished in 2005 to clear part of the site for a potential redevelopment that never materialized.

The buildings that remained, and are now being demolished, were in various states of repair before a wrecking ball started swinging at them. The northeastern most building on the site had a wall partially fall off in October, but according to a comment by Michael Horne the wall was not structural support wall, but a remnant of a previously demolished building. Various informal comments about the two southern buildings on the site put their condition between empty shells in need of a lot of work and rapidly deteriorating. The buildings were not going to be easy to redevelop, and that’s before considering the challenges with the site and any need for environmental remediation caused by years of tanning.

The site itself presents a number of challenges to redevelopment, with or without buildings on it. The greatest of the challenges is the height difference between the site and North Water Street, with the height difference being pegged at as much as 40 feet in some parts. The site is also constrained by the Milwaukee River and the Holton Avenue Viaduct, which limits access to the site, exacerbating the height challenges.

The need for environmental remediation was certainly a looming challenge to redeveloping the buildings on the site, something building owners in the recently controversial East Side Historic Commercial District do not have to contend with. The need for demolition of the Trostel and Pfister and Vogel tanneries was a clear sign that environmental work on the site alone was going to cost well into the millions.

At the end of the day, the deck was stacked against the remaining buildings. The fact that a deal didn’t get done in the condo-crazed early to mid 2000’s likely sealed their date with the wrecking ball. The economics of pulling off such a large deal in Milwaukee’s real estate market were daunting, even in a strong economy (for evidence of how hard things can get in a down economy look at Mandel’s struggle to get financing for the next buildings at The North End). I didn’t expect demolition to come so soon, but when the wall collapsed on one of the buildings something needed to be done.

The Opportunity

The demolition of the Gallun tannery doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom though. The site itself presents a number of opportunities going forward. Although it’s unfortunate to lose the historic tanning complex, the site will now become a blank slate for urban development.

With the buildings out of the way, potential developers of the challenging site now have one less obstacle in making a project work on the site. At the same time, one less carrot is in front of them, as historic preservation tax credits are off of the table.

With any luck, hopefully in the next ten years a multi-building project will break ground for the site. That new project will hopefully fuse together the Beerline B neighborhood with the Lower East Side by generating more activity on the under-utilized Marsupial Bridge that hangs below the Holton Viaduct. Any new project on that site will hopefully take full advantage of its location along the river and extend the Milwaukee RiverWalk.

Workers inside Gallun Tannery

Workers inside Gallun Tannery

Given the size of the site versus the size of Milwaukee’s real estate market (and the potential need for environmental remediation on the site as well as the likely need for a road to access the entire site), expect any sizable proposal that comes forward to include a request for public financing.

It’s always a shame to lose part of the historic fabric that makes Milwaukee unique. We as a community should do everything we can preserve the historic built environment where it’s viable. Recent events like the Gallun demolition and Marriott Hotel proposal have hopefully demonstrated that better historic preservation policies are needed (more incentives to keep the buildings in good shape before they get to the point of no return, perhaps).

When it comes to redeveloping former industrial buildings, a number of things must be right to make their preservation economically viable. In the Gallun’s case the odd site configuration, likely need for environmental remediation, and site location weren’t helping make preservation any more likely. Going forward, it’s more likely a proposal will come forward for the site given the removal of the buildings, which presented another challenge for an already difficult site.

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6 thoughts on “Gallun Tannery Site Presents Opportunity and Challenges”

  1. M says:

    The last thing I would want to see on the former Gallun Tannery site is more housing. This neighborhood on the east side of the river needs an open space for recreation or even a boat launch and docks for recreation boaters. Also restaurants and dinner cruise businesses like the Edelweiss would be a great mix for this area. This spot has the potential of being the “New Water”.

  2. Dave Reid says:

    @M I do want to see mixed-use, meaning retail/restaurant uses and boat access, but definitely additional housing, as adding density to Milwaukee, yes even on the East Side, is key to our development as a city.

  3. John says:

    why not have both?

  4. Logan Schwenker says:

    To the first two commenters on this page. NO, we dont need more people in this city. The reason so many people immigrated to this once great city was because there were jobs for making things, lots of things. We made absolutely everything from automotive frames to huge machine gears to engine castings to leather hides which included all sorts of leather products to beer to meats and the list goes on. You want to know how to make a community successful? You make things. Its that simple, when people make things they get good jobs and they make money and then they buy things themselves. But it all starts with manufacturing because people want to buy things that make their lives better and thats really why we started manufacturing goods as a human race in the first place. If you think getting more people into this city will make it better, it will to a certain degree, but we can do a lot better. We need to educate every person in this city so they can do more with the tools (their brain) that they have been given. In addition to that, we need to start making things again so that we can once again become a great city of manufacturers that we once were.

  5. Dave Reid says:

    @Logan I don’t disagree that we need more job creation, but that doesn’t imply we don’t need more density/population as we definitely do. Further, increased density does in fact play into the creation of new businesses, and enhancing existing businesses.

  6. Kurtis says:

    All the industrial real estate is being developed or has already into housing, so even if Milwaukee wanted to have industry return(which it clearly doesn’t) there’s no place to build. It’s such an incredibly sad joke and quite frankly I have no more energy to try to convince people that we are killing this city.

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