A Room With A View for the New Preservationists

By - Dec 13th, 2010 10:51 am

No one would talk much in society if they knew how often they misunderstood others.
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Marriott Hotel proposed for downtown Milwaukee has received a lot of attention lately. It parlays questions going far beyond the buildings themselves. The proposal brings Milwaukee’s Historic Preservation Ordinance and the Downtown Area Plan under question. It brings to high relief the pressure a strained economy can put on development decisions. Unfortunately, much of the talk surrounding this proposal has been incomplete and inaccurate. With this article we intend to clarify what preservation means for Milwaukee and to state Historic Milwaukee’s position on the current proposal.

In 1987, Milwaukee’s Common Council unanimously passed a resolution to create the East Side Commercial Historic District, putting development in the district under the regulatory oversight of Milwaukee’s Historic Preservation Ordinance, carried out by the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). The buildings in the district are designated historic as they currently stand; any external alterations or demolitions must receive a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) from the HPC. The East Side Commercial Historic District is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, providing financial incentives for rehabilitation.1

On October 21, 2010 the Common Council unanimously approved the Downtown Area Comprehensive Plan Update, a plan designed to maximize tax base and job creation that the City spent 18 months on and over 2,500 people participated in developing. The plan states that “locally designated contributing historic buildings should be retained and redeveloped in accordance with local preservation requirements” (p. 65) – because it makes good economic sense.

We as a community have determined through a legislative process of passing a historic preservation code, designating a historic district, adopting a Study Report of that district, and approving the Downtown Area Plan Update that the East Side Commercial Historic District is a valuable piece of our City’s heritage and economy.

The proposal at issue is Wave Development, LLC’s application requesting a Certificate of Appropriateness from the HPC for the demolition of five 19th century buildings2 – the last intact late 19th and early 20th century block of commercial buildings in downtown Milwaukee – and the construction of a new Marriott Hotel within the East Side Commercial Historic District.

The Historic Preservation Commission is holding a public hearing on Wave Development’s proposal today at 4pm in room 301-B of City Hall. The HPC will hear public testimony and may take action in one of four ways:

  1. The HPC may vote within 30 days after the public hearing to defer a determination on the application for a period not to exceed one year from the date of the application. HPC must provide the applicant with a report on these reasons. During the deferral, HPC and the applicant must discuss and cooperate on the application, and the owner must take whatever steps are necessary to prevent further deterioration of the buildings. However, the applicant may appeal deferral to the Common Council.
  2. The HPC may issue a COA.
  3. The HPC may issue a COA with conditions. The applicant may appeal to the Common Council if it does not accept the conditions.
  4. The HPC may deny a COA. The applicant may appeal this decision to the Common Council.

Historic Milwaukee on Economic Development

Historic Milwaukee would like to see more development and supports new, quality construction; we hope a development moves forward and commend Wave Development for investing in downtown. Unfortunately, public discourse has been pitted as a battle between forces assumed to be mutually exclusive – historic preservation and economic development. The view that these are mutually exclusive actually makes it more difficult for development to move forward in Milwaukee. Time is wasted creating divisions rather than finding paths toward negotiation and a mutually acceptable end point. Historic Milwaukee wants to work with Wave Development, the Department of City Development, preservationists, and the Common Council to find an acceptable end point at the earliest possible opportunity.

Our interests lie in the careful consideration of the built environment and the long-term vitality of Milwaukee. It has been shown that when a community can “wind the thread of history without breaking it”3 it can ensure more sustained and predictable increases in land and property values. For instance, a poll put out by the Journal Sentinel gives individuals the choice between “saving the buildings” and “building the hotel”. Historic Milwaukee is not voicing concern over the Marriott Proposal in order to “save” anything. The word “save” indicates the buildings are without their own inherent contributions to the economy and growth of Milwaukee. The reason we are asking the developer to use the historic buildings for the Marriott Hotel project is not because these buildings necessarily need saving, but because we understand that adaptively and creatively reusing them will save us from moving in economically, environmentally, and socially unsustainable directions.

Historic buildings are living parts of our contemporary urban fabric; they contribute to history as records of events, construction methods, rare materials, planning practices, and social structures. Historic and older buildings have the unique ability to harness preservation as, really, the ultimate tool in urban planning and development. Incorporating historic buildings, sites, and districts at every level of planning and development has been proven to have superior economic power, environmental sensitivity, and attraction over time.4

Historic Milwaukee’s Position on this Proposal

Historic Milwaukee is not opposed to a Marriott Hotel at N. Milwaukee Street and E. Wisconsin Ave. downtown. However, as currently submitted, Historic Milwaukee does not support Wave Development’s application. This is not because Historic Milwaukee is against economic development, but because the proposal was submitted without consideration of historic preservation and, in fact, fails to address or even reference a single one of the demolition guidelines5 it is required by law to satisfy. The developer’s application also fails to conform with the policies and standards of the Downtown Area Comprehensive Plan Update, seeks to create new wealth while destroying existing wealth, and asks the City to trade something that we as a community have determined makes us unique for something that increases our anonymity. The Follansbee and Field Blocks even appear in the Updated Downtown Plan as an example of buildings that should be restored. Whether you agree or not, our elected representatives thought the five 19th century buildings sought to be demolished by Wave Development were unique enough to the history and heritage of this City to unanimously pass a resolution protecting them (on November 17, 1987; File No. 870085). Historic Milwaukee cannot support a Certificate of Appropriateness that would completely ignore these important legal requirements.

The Historic Preservation Commission has a duty to apply the preservation ordinance and carefully consider major changes to local historic districts. Wave Development submitted the proposal on November 3rd, the next HPC meeting was held on November 15th, 2010. It is misleading to say HPC delayed a decision by calling for a public hearing on December 13th. The HPC pursued its duty by allowing time for public input and a decision on what may be a major disruption in the East Side Commercial Historic District.

Economics of Rehabilitation

Understanding that the proper allowance of time should be given for commission review and public input does not relieve the sense of urgency the community and our elected officials feel about the need to decrease the jobless rate and balance the budget. Yet here we run into another false dichotomy, that we will not create jobs if the current application is not approved by the Common Council. A $50 million rehabilitation project would result in about 820 jobs, a net increase of 30% over new construction.6

The difficult bridge to build is over the division between the conventional development model and the resulting, sustained high property values of rehabilitated historic building stock. The conventional focus on reduction in upfront costs in project procurement usually eliminates the implementation of local vernacular building practices, local history, and culture. Unique, hand crafted architecture is expensive as compared to large “kit of parts” prefabricated buildings. However, these are the precise aspects of the built environment that are investments for the long-term value in buildings and communities. The long-term prosperity of communities is based on their ability to retain and attract residents, which is partially based on the quality of the community’s built environment. This conflict between short-term profitability and long-term community viability and profitability has lead to severe reductions in the quality of the American built environment in the second half of the 20th century. This is one of the reasons it is imperative to rehabilitate, reuse, and adapt buildings from before this era.

There is hope we won’t have to make a stark choice between retaining historic building stock and the conventional development model. Evan Zeppos, the spokesman for Wave Development, has indicated in multiple comment threads, “Our first idea was to preserve the historic look on Wisconsin Avenue as portrayed in the drawing on page 3 of the Plans of the official filing.7 There also are ways to reuse building materials and further modify the design on page 3. While we have been pleased with the overwhelmingly positive response to this project, we still appreciate and value the comments from those with a different opinion. Ongoing discussion just might lead to a solution that everyone can support.” While Historic Milwaukee hopes the developer will do more than give a contemporary hotel a “historic look”; we are genuine in our desire for ongoing discussion and open to a great variety of solutions.

It is remarkable for any commercial structure to have survived for 144 years this close to a city center. It would be a mistake to raze these buildings without diligent investigation, prudence, and at least consideration of Milwaukee’s Preservation Ordinance, especially at a time when the market actually supports places of distinction, a sense of history, and authenticity. We will attract more people and have a more vibrant city if we can be forward thinking and create a powerfully distinct, authentic, and human-scale path of Milwaukee’s historic architecture from Brady Street to Cathedral Square, through the East Side Commercial Historic District, and all the way down to Walker’s Point. Let’s not lose that opportunity with a decision made in one month, without negotiations.

The question is not whether we must either build a Marriott or rehab historic buildings, we can do both at this site. The question is how we as a community are choosing to use the vetted tools we currently have in order to harness as much economic, environmental, and cultural vitality from our built environment as possible. We have a preservation ordinance and a downtown plan because we want the decisions we make today to yield the best possible outcomes, on all fronts, in the future. Let’s apply the knowledge and laws time has vetted. It is the application of these tools that allows conscious and thoughtful mediation of short and long-term interests, of economic, cultural, and environmental interests. Let’s not act in haste on this issue, as we all are aware of what that produces.

Guest Post by Anna-Marie Opgenorth with contributions from Matthew Trussoni.

Anna-Marie Opgenorth is Historic Milwaukee Inc.’s Executive Director.

Matthew Trussoni is currently an Assistant Professor in and an alumnus of the Milwaukee School of Engineering’s Architectural Engineering Department, and is an acting member of Historic Milwaukee’s Preservation Committee.


  1. The developer can twin New Market Tax Credits with Federal and State Rehabilitation Tax Credits netting a significant reduction in project costs either through offsets to future income taxes or as equity if syndicated. 20% Federal tax credit plus 5% State tax credit.  In addition, “twinning” of RTC and New Market Tax Credits on the same real estate transaction has a net effect of adding 30-35 percent more equity to the transaction. (www.ncptt.nps.gov/preservation-economic-impact-model-20-1997-0)
  2. These buildings are: The Pioneer Building (1864-65/1925-1926) at 611- 625 N. Milwaukee Street, the Dr. James Diefendorf Building (1867) at 627-631 N. Milwaukee Street, the Samuel A. Field Building (1877) at 633 N Milwaukee Street, the Follansbee Block (1867) at 319-323 E. Wisconsin, and the Samuel A. Field building (1867) at 327 E Wisconsin. (The southwest corner of North Milwaukee Street and East Wisconsin Avenue is popularly known as the Birchard’s and Follansbee’s Block. Birchard’s building is currently owned by Johnson’s Bank. It is a beautiful example of rehabilitation of 19th century architecture for modern uses. Birchard’s building is not part of Wave Development’s proposal.)
  3. Henry Brooks Adams (1838–1918), U.S. historian. The Education of Henry B. Adams, p. 1151, Library of America (1983).
  4. (http://www.ncptt.nps.gov/preservation-economic-impact-model-20-1997-0)
  5. (http://city.milwaukee.gov/TableofContents1179.htm)
  6. (http://www.ncptt.nps.gov/preservation-economic-impact-model-20-1997-0)
  7. (http://milwaukee.legistar.com/LegislationDetail.aspx?ID=797937&GUID=88C9858B-8DA1-4428-93AF-91276EB812C1&Options=&Search=)

3 thoughts on “A Room With A View for the New Preservationists”

  1. Ben says:

    Thank you, Ms. Opgenorth and Mr. Trussoni, for an intelligent, comprehensive and passionate perspective on this issue.

  2. Jeff Jordan says:

    The timeless appeal of great historic buildings are always the hallmark of great cities. Well Said, Mz. Opgenorth and Mr. Trussoi.

  3. Jason says:

    Great article. Thank you for your insight and reasoned perspective on what has been a heated issue at times. I thought this part of the article was especially well stated- “We will attract more people and have a more vibrant city if we can be forward thinking and create a powerfully distinct, authentic, and human-scale path of Milwaukee’s historic architecture from Brady Street to Cathedral Square, through the East Side Commercial Historic District, and all the way down to Walker’s Point.” Those beautiful buildings help tell the history of our city and adds to its character.

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