Patti Wenzel

Common Council approves Marriott development

By - Jan 21st, 2011 04:00 am
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Proposed Marriott Hotel on Wisconsin Avenue

After weeks of bickering, cajoling and compromise, the Milwaukee Common Council voted 13-2 on Wednesday to approve the demolition of five historic buildings on Milwaukee Street for the construction of a Marriott hotel, while removing a condition placed on the project by the Historic Preservation Commission.

The new hotel project will restore the late 19th century facades on the Wisconsin Avenue portion of the project, including the removal of the horizontal windows installed during the late 1960’s, returning the mast and roof line and gracious arched windows of an earlier era.

The city’s Historic Preservation Commission  had tangled with developers from Jackson Street Management LLC over the Milwaukee Street facades, initially requesting the east-facing wall that housed old store fronts be retained and restored. When the developers said it was “impossible” to save any portion of the buildings, the HPC compromised and approved the demolition, on the condition that the top three floors of the hotel tower be set back 15 feet from the front property line.

With that decision in hand, the developers and their supporters appealed their case to the city’s Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee. They argued that the setback provision would reduce the amount of usable space for hotel rooms, reducing the capacity of the hotel by 12 percent. Mark Flaherty, a partner in Jackson Street Management LLC, said the provision was a “job killer.” The ZND voted 3-2 to remove the condition and move the project to the council.

The $50 million Marriott development is expected to create 350-450 temporary construction jobs, and 200 permanent hospitality jobs.

Personally, I’m happy to see new business development and job opportunities coming to Milwaukee. Will it solve all of t he problems of unemployment and job creation in our city? Of course not. But it is a step in the right direction.

This project was not approved without plenty of bickering on both sides of the issue. Some aldermen and historic preservationists said the process was moving too fast; not allowing time for discussion, compromise and better planning. Those in favor of development said delays put the project in jeopardy and sent a message that Milwaukee isn’t serious about creating jobs and building its tax base.

Both sides have a point, and hopefully this was an exercise we’ll have the opportunity to learn from again soon, when another new business comes to downtown Milwaukee with new job opportunities in hand.

Proposed view of Marriott Hotel on Milwaukee Street.

I come at this with experience as the former chairperson of a municipal zoning committee. On one occasion, we were presented with an opportunity to preserve an old school building from the early 1900s. It had been vacant for 20 years and was in desperate need of rehabilitation — or a wrecking ball. The developer intended to turn it into elderly housing and a majority of the community rallied for its approval.

However, we moved slowly until assurances were in place that the historical look would be preserved and the financial details were in line. We heard the howls of obstruction from both sides; that we were against historical preservation or didn’t care about the unemployed in the community.

In all, it took about six months from the time the developers approached the zoning committee and city council until we gave the go-ahead. Now, the city of Phillips has a beautifully restored schoolhouse with 20 elderly housing units and a community center.

The Marriott project was first presented to the city council and the HPC in mid-November. The first drawings were formally presented to the HPC on Dec. 13 and the second drawings showing the restoration of the Wisconsin Avenue facades were presented to the commission on Jan. 10. Wednesday’s vote came exactly two months from the time the project was first presented to the council and its commission.

Two months doesn’t seem like a lot of time, especially when you’re talking about a $50 million project.

On the other hand, while preservationists claimed losing the Milwaukee Street buildings would reduce the number of 19th century commercial buildings in the city, there are still plenty of restored and un-restored structures of that era available for enjoyment and preservation.

I don’t think the actions of the HPC were outrageous or meant to stall development. In fact, thanks to the HPC and even Ald. Bob Bauman, Milwaukee is getting a hotel that fits into the surrounding community, and is much better than the first incarnation of the hotel.

And while developers, union officials and community leaders stirred up emotions over lost jobs and potential economic growth, a project that will take at least two years to construct and may stand for 50 years or more could have withstood a few extra weeks of review.

But that is all water under the bridge. What we now have is a wonderful compromise – a 200-room hotel with additional meeting and convention space; a new restaurant and a restored facade on Milwaukee’s Grand Avenue, and the prospect of hundreds of construction and hospitality jobs.

That’s a win-win if I ever heard one.

0 thoughts on “Common Council approves Marriott development”

  1. Anonymous says:

    And what will happen to one of my favorite book sellers, downtown Books?
    That is a wonderful used bookshop, where the staff really assists the customers to locate things.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Sorry I didn’t include this in the story. According to the developers, there will be multiple retail spaces within the development and Downtown Books will be given an opportunity to be in the new space.
    Thanks for asking.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Since the HPC did nothing but issue unreasonable demands and get kicked to the curb as a result, the process moved quickly.

    If the HPC had accepted that there is nothing worth preserving on that site that the developer would ever agree to, if the HPC had instead pushed for quality new construction that respected the past and context of the site (rather than fighting to preserve a facade), and if there had been discussion of green issues and not just subjective aesthetics, then the process might have gone on longer to a better result.

    A progressive process and savvy media/public discussion would focus on the balance of economic and aesthetic issues, the efficiency/sustainability and the historical.

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