Don’t Wreck Sidney Hih
The troubled history of municipal land clearance and why it’s a very bad idea to demolish Sidney Hih.
In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a watershed decision in Kelo vs. New London. The ruling affirmed the city of New London’s use of eminent domain to take over private property owned by Susette Kelo, based on its dubious claim that her newly renovated house was blighting a seaside neighborhood of 19th century homes.
As a former mayor, I surprised some of my mayoral colleagues by submitting an Amicus brief defending Ms. Kelo’s property rights. From my experience and observation of state and city government I concluded long ago that clearance and consolidation of land by government for economic purposes rarely leads to good outcomes.
What made the attack on Kelo’s property rights seem so outrageous to me was the foolishness of the project New London and the state of Connecticut were supporting by condemning and removing her house and those of her neighbors. The city’s plan was to take ownership of the entire neighborhood, remove all the houses, consolidate the lots into one giant parcel and turn it over for one dollar a year to a developer who would build a retail mall, hotel, condos and parking lots on land adjacent to a new Pfizer Corporation pharmaceutical plant. Additionally, the city and state committed $80 million in direct subsides to the project.
Kelo and her neighbors lost on a 5-4 decision, in a case that gave eminent domain a bad name. New London’s plan, it turns out, failed completely. Nothing was built and after its tax abatement ran out, Pfizer shut its plant, which remains empty today.
A local example of site clearance is the empty block at 4th St. and Wisconsin Avenue facing the convention center next to the Grand Avenue. The block has been empty for almost 30 years. Before it was cleared by the city for eventual expansion of the Grand Avenue, the block included the 90-room Randolph Hotel, restaurants, a movie theater, a jeweler, a nightclub and office space and apartments above some of the stores. Most of the property owners on the block were current in their tax payments; since the city assumed ownership it has collected no property taxes.
After expansion of the Grand Avenue mall fell through the city plan for the 4th and Wisconsin land was changed to seek a hotel across the street from the new convention center. One argument for creating the new convention center was the expectation that it would induce new hotel construction. Building the new convention center included the demolition of the Belmont Hotel. This happened during my time as mayor. I resisted the demolition at first, but regrettably let it happen. The Grand Avenue project had earlier demolished two hotels, the Antlers where Frank Sinatra twice performed and the once elegant Plankinton. In all, four hotels in this area were removed to “foster development.”
The condemnation and demolition of the Milwaukee Road and Chicago & Northwestern railroad stations, the Layton Art Gallery and Milwaukee Envelope’s factory next to MATC are all examples of counter productive downtown demolition, yet Milwaukee also has had some happy outcomes. The Pabst Theater was saved. The Third Ward was spared clearance and is a vibrant, valuable sector of downtown. The Beerline “B” development along the Milwaukee River was built on a 28-acre former rail yard. The city cleaned, coded and divided the site into six sections. Developers competed for the parcels in six design competitions and those that won then paid a fixed price for the land. The coding was calibrated to the scale of the Brewers Hill and Brady Street neighborhoods. The results are spectacular, with hundreds of millions of dollars added to the tax base. More recently, the Pabst Brewery site has been thoughtfully redeveloped and in-fill projects have been carefully inserted into many of Milwaukee’s neighborhoods such as Walker’s Point and North and Prospect.
What seems to almost never work is clearance and lot consolidation. The city is about to do it again with the Sidney Hih Building. For 50 years civic leaders have pointed at Sidney Hih as a blight on downtown, but it has survived — even as much of the north side of downtown was cleared for urban renewal and the Park East freeway. The buildings (Sidney Hih is actually an amalgamation) were given a counter-culture paint job in the 1960s which made them more of a target for Milwaukee’s conservative business leadership, but may have also saved the structure by attracting artists, musicians and their followers.
Now Sidney Hih is under attack again. The City and County offer to site Kohl’s corporate headquarters in the Park East corridor was rejected. Kohl’s, unlike Target, has always been uncomfortable with urban locations for its stores, and was an unlikely recruit to downtown. You really need a corporate leader to want to be downtown — like Bob Mariano who moved Roundys to East Wisconsin Avenue from Waukesha County or Jeffrey Joerres of Manpower. Disappointment with Kohl’s rejection may have motivated city and county officials to think Sidney Hih’s run-down condition prevented the relocation. I doubt that Sidney Hih was a factor at all, but a corporate headquarters that rejected the Park East site even though a huge subsidy was offered may not have been a good long-term play.
In New London, Connecticut, the city thought it knew best and created a mess. Now Milwaukee has a decision to make. Tear down buildings that have been a part of the city’s fabric for 130 years or let rehabber John Raettig or someone like him try to purchase and restore the buildings. Raettig prides himself on not seeking subsidies for his projects. He says he can put the Sidney Hi back on the tax rolls. Saving a remnant of Milwaukee’s Downtown North area could help its revitalization just as preservation helped the Third Ward. The corridor is coded for complex mixed-use buildings on blocks and streets. It’s really not meant to be a suburban-style business park. It’s meant to be part of the city fabric. The city should get back to its own plan; Sidney Hih fits that plan just fine.