HMI making waves in city development
Historic Milwaukee, Inc., the local preservation group, has ramped up its profile in recent years by sponsoring a regular series of panel discussions and events in addition to its stock-in-trade of tours of this city’s architectural heritage.
The organization got a big lift in September 2011 with its premiere of “Doors Open Milwaukee,” a sort of tour-on-steroids during which dozens of buildings were open to the public over a two day period. The response was significant, with some venues receiving many times the expected number of visitors. The group recorded 10,000 attendees and over 42,000 site visits.
HMI branching out into activism
HMI has also been successful in getting downtown businesses to open their boardrooms and conference centers to informal gatherings and panel discussions. One was held Wednesday, April 11 at the offices of Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren at 1000 N Water St., which, although not a historic building, affords excellent views of the surrounding downtown landscape, with all its complexity and diversity.
The subject was “New Development in Historic Districts,” a particularly touchy issue of late, as bulldozers claw their way through the west side of N. Milwaukee St. between E Michigan St. and E. Wisconsin Avenue to prepare for the construction of a new Marriott Hotel.
The original proposal for the hotel called for a quirky modern building, but after the historic review process it was modified to incorporate some of the historic buildings on the site.
According to Doug Nysse, Principal and Lead Designer at Kahler Slater, “We are saving and preserving all of the Wisconsin Avenue façades and a depth of 80 feet of those buildings.”
Even so, a very solid reinforced concrete building was torn down, leaving some to wonder if they saved the right buildings.
Surrounding this development news was a talk-radio-fueled fury which demonstrated that some partisans feel development at any cost is a sound goal of the community, and old buildings be damned if they happen to be in the way.
This led Ald. Terry Witkowski, whose south side district is destined to remain forever of little interest to historic preservationists, to propose wholesale changes to the city’s historic building laws. This process is continuing in the common council, and was among the issues facing the panel Wednesday evening.
The evening began with a social hour which drew dozens of architects, developers and citizens. Among them was Jeff Bentoff, recently of the County Executive’s office, and active in his neighborhood historic district. Others included host Bruce Block, who heads the real estate department at Reinhart, community activist Jim Godsil, Mary Louise Schumacher of the Journal Sentinel, whose family settled on some historic property once upon a time, and UWM architecture chair Bob Greenstreet, a.k.a. “The Man in Black,” as he was called by Block.
Panelists included former Journal Sentinel architecture critic Whitney Gould and HMI board member Ald. Nik Kovac, whose district includes such gilded neighborhoods as Bentoff’s Water Tower district as well as Riverwest, which is perhaps one of the nation’s most intact early 20th century working class neighborhoods.
Kovac’s mother Thea Kovac was among those in the audience, and you could see her bristle a little when a slide show included a photo of a parking garage that was plopped right next to her east side home. That garage was one of the things that impelled her son to run for office.
The evening’s business began with a presentation by Keith Stachowiak, Jr., a graduate student in architecture and an intern with Uihlein-Wilson Architects. His speech was titled “Hotel MKE: An Alternate Proposal to the Marriott.”
His thesis, graphically illustrated, was that developers could have spent a little more time on the design of their hotel, and by moving a few elements around, could have constructed a building that both took advantage of its historical elements as well as paid attention to its true time and place.
It should be noted that Uihlein Wilson Architects is located in the McGeogh Building, immediately south of the new hotel, and that its principal, David V. Uihlein, Jr. fought, unsuccessfully, for a setback of the new building where it adjoined his.
Stachowiak’s proposals addressed the concerns of his boss, who has hired Mueller Communications to lobby on its behalf as Witkowski’s proposed changes to the historic preservation ordinance go through the council.
They also made for a better building, said Whitney Gould, who said “with the right architects and city development support you don’t have to choose between nostalgic stuff and oddball transgressive stuff. We might have been able to do it at the Marriott,” she said, if we had bothered to “seize the day.”
This sentiment was echoed by Ald. Bob Bauman, in whose district the hotel is located, and who has said from the start that the city would be better served with a patient, controlled process for new development in historic districts, rather than one that can be turned on its head at the whim of talk show hosts.
“Witkowski discourages innovative design,” Gould opined. His proposed changes to the preservation ordinance “is like reading the old testament. There is a lot of ‘thou shall not.’”
[Update Apr. 18, 12:45 p.m.: A previous version of this story stated that “demolition of the site will leave little but the facades of some old frame-and-brick buildings.” As clarified by Barbara Jahncke, Kahler Slater is preserving all of the Wisconsin Avenue facades at a depth of 80 feet.]