A Battle Over Historic Designation
Developer Robert Joseph wants to demolish 1880s tavern but Ald. Bauman and Third Ward board vote for historic designation, which provides protection for now.
The Historic Third Ward Architectural Review Board (ARB) voted 5-0 Wednesday, May 27th, to concur with the recommendations of the Historic Preservation Commission and the Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee that the 1880’s Catherine Foley — Miller Tavern Building at 266 E. Erie St. be granted a Historic Designation.
Developer Robert Joseph, who owns the former MIAD Student Union, had proposed that it be demolished to allow construction of a new building. Should the Common Council also agree to designate the building as a historic structure, that would not prevent its demolition, ARB Chairman Bob Bauman said. “All it would do is to institute a process for the demolition,” the Milwaukee alderman noted. “There are criteria for demolishing listed buildings. It’s a balancing test, basically.”
Joseph requested the ARB delay once again a vote on the issue, promising to come back in about 30 days with renderings of his proposed project. [Bauman was absent for the May 13th meeting and the board postponed the decision then.]
The renderings would convince board members that his proposal would conform to both the district’s guidelines for a replacement building and the guidelines for the demolition of an existing historic property, Joseph promised. Joseph said he had no plans to demolish the building absent board approval of a replacement, although Bauman made it clear he would put a hold on any demolition permit.
If the ARB failed to concur with the recommendations of the HPC and the ZND committee, Bauman warned, he would expect a hold to be put on any demolition permit, which would be in effect “a Temporary Restraining Order,” postponing the demolition. That would be followed by public hearings, and even possible litigation that could tie up the project for months.
Furthermore, if the board did not concur with the historic designation at this meeting, Bauman said he would introduce legislation to eliminate ARB involvement in the project and any future ones. He said he could pass the legislation in one cycle, if needed.
As far as the process of designating the building as historic, the question at hand is, “does it qualify?” Bauman said. That is a yes or no answer, he added. There is no balancing act involved, no judging the merits of the proposed project or other consideration.
Bauman called on City Clerk Jim Owczarski to recite the criteria for designation, as cited in the legislation, which Bauman authored. The criteria included “exceptional architectural interest,” “whether it contributes to the district as a whole,” “whether it is of such old, unusual material that it could not be replaced without great expense,” or if it provided a study of a region’s culture and heritage, among other factors.
At a previous meeting on May 13, the building’s particular qualifications were recited by Carlen Hatala, the city’s preservation officer.
Joseph expressed disappointment that the board was acting so decisively to save a building that his team finds to be beyond saving or alteration. Things always “went predictably and smoothly” in his past dealings with the board, he said, but now it had added a “substantial layer of unpredictability and complexity” to the development process, he said.
Bauman said, “we know what you want to do, and there is substantial opposition” to tearing down the building. “Will [historic designation] create more delay, will it be more costly? Yes.”
He went on to say the role of the historic designation would be to balance public and private interests in the development of the area and of the city as a whole. “Because of the rules and regulations [governing development in] the Historic Third Ward, it is the most valuable neighborhood in the city, and maybe even the state.”
“It’s likely I’ll kill the project,” Joseph said. “If it gets too hard, I’ll go elsewhere.”
Bauman was unmoved, noting that if it not for the Third Ward guidelines, “the neighborhood would still be a red light district filled with old factories.”
Bauman then asked for a motion on the matter. Nancy O’Keefe, Historic Third Ward executive director, offered one immediately. Then, Bauman asked for a second to the motion. The clock ticked, the crickets chirpped. Finally, he said, “well, I’ll second it.” The matter passed unanimously.