Historic Preservation a balancing act at City Hall
Changes to the City of Milwaukee’s Historic Preservation Commission ordinance proposed by south side Alderman Terry Witkowski drew a standing room only crowd at the commission’s hearing Tuesday, March 27, at City Hall.
But there weren’t many takers to Witkowski’s suggestions of tightening restrictions on historic designation by imposing a fee, restricting nominations, removing delays, and requiring supermajority votes by the commission and the Common Council if owners object to a building’s designation.
Witkowski’s concerns followed public controversy attached to the Marriott Hotel development now underway downtown. The developers had sought to demolish some historic buildings that were ultimately preserved in a compromise, while a partial demolition was approved.
It became a cause célèbre on talk radio, however, right-wing rage did not translate into widespread support at the hearing of the seven member panel, all appointed by Mayor Tom Barrett, and including citizen members, real estate professionals, along with Ald. Bob Bauman, who would be among the aldermen to vote on any change to the ordinance when submitted.
But that won’t be as soon as anticipated, since Witkowski decided to not introduce his measure at the April 4 meeting of the Zoning Neighborhoods and Development committee, pending further revisions to the draft.
Historic preservation a balancing act
Milwaukee’s Historic Preservation legislation dates to the end of the freeway era, when many buildings were torn down for freeways never built, particularly in the Fond du Lac Avenue corridor, and notably, the Park East. The city’s African American commercial community has never rebounded from the widening of W. Walnut St. in the 1970’s.
On the preservation plus side, residents of Riverwest had previously, and successfully, fought a proposed widening of E. Locust St. from N. Holton Ave. to N. Humboldt Blvd. that would have created a scar in the neighborhood. Supporters say historic districts have led to a renaissance of Brady Street, Mitchell Street and other commercial areas, and have preserved property values in wealthy neighborhoods, like the Water Tower district, and have stabilized neighborhoods like Brewers Hill.
Paradoxically, poverty has proven to be a most effective historic preservation tool, since there is little tendency to meddle with buildings that people neither want to tear down or “update.”
But Witkowski, bearing the banner of “any development is good development,” engaged the battle by his legislation. Some question his motivation.
Alderman on Commission opposed to changes
Bauman in particular was vocal in his opposition to the changes. He was against a requirement that the owner’s preference be considered saying it watered down the ordinance by creating a supermajority, in which two-thirds of the Commission and two-thirds of the Council would be required to override the owner’s opposition to listing, or to override 35 percent of owners opposed in a given district.
Blair Williams, a developer who sits on the board, also said he opposed the supermajority provision.
Commissioner Randy Bryant, a real estate professional who has made a niche market out of renting historic East Side mansions, said he was against reducing the time the commission may defer a demolition permit from one year to eight months, as suggested by the legislation.
He said these delays have “never been abused.” Commissioner Matt Jarosz said the use of these extensions was “rare.”
Bauman was particularly harsh on a provision requiring proof of financing for the issuance of a demolition permit.
At face value, this would seem to be a tool to require that development of some sort should be insured if a historic structure were demolished, but Bauman faulted the wording of the requirement. “What proof? What timing?” Bauman, an attorney, asked Deputy City Clerk Jim Owczarski, whose office drafts proposed legislation, “Where was the city attorney? … This has questionable enforceability. … This says you need proof to tear down a garage? … What if you want green space, and don’t plan to build something?”
Owczarski said some changes would merely be to codify practices already in place, while some commissioners feared the new policies would restrict their ability to be flexible, and would compel certain decisions and practices.
Sixty-one people printed their names on the public sign-in sheet, and while not all gave testimony, there was little support evident for Witkowski’s plan. Whitney Gould, the retired and respected Journal Sentinel architectural critic appeared by written communication saying she was opposed.
The legislation “invites the wrecking ball,” she wrote, adding, “hello bulldozers.”
George Walker, the founder of Historic Milwaukee Incorporated’s Doors Open Milwaukee, said the event drew 10,000 visitors last year in its initial outing, including 1,300 to the Grain Exchange and 700 to the Wisconsin Club gazebo, and added that three-quarters of the visitors came from outside the metropolitan area.
Jim Haertel, owner of Best Place at the Pabst Brewery, cautioned against meddling with the ordinance. “Milwaukee gets it,” he said.
David Vogel Uihlein, who identified himself as a preservation architect, felt the proposals needed further study and asked for more time for “consensus building.”
Donna Schliemann, a preservation activist, said the Witkowski proposal “doesn’t revise — it rewrites the commission.”
According to Allyson Nemec, an architect who serves as chair of the commission, “This may be solving a problem we don’t have.”
[Updated 4/2: A previous version of this story had real estate professional Randy Bryant’s name listed as Randy Crump.]