Design By Committee
Or how Ald. Kovac and the Historic Preservation Commission bedevil architects.
On September 28, 2015, a joint meeting of the City Plan and Historic Preservation commissions was held to review a proposed project on Brady St. It lasted about ninety minutes and you might want to watch it. The meeting exemplifies the issue I wrote about in my last column about architectural review boards and how constraining they can be.
Coming before the commission were developer Peter Odgen and architects from Engberg Anderson, two experienced hometown players in Milwaukee’s real estate market who had failed repeatedly to get a Certificate of Appropriateness from HPC, meaning the project couldn’t go forward.
At issue was whether building would fit into its neighborhood. This has become the guiding principle for the Historic Preservation and City Plan commissions that frames architecture in Milwaukee. On the one hand, this principle makes it very difficult to build utterly inappropriate and tawdry buildings in prime locations. But it can also curb the imagination of architects and spirit of developers who might create something authentic, instead insuring we get only polite echoes of a neighborhood’s historic architecture, the latest example being the less-than-landmark Kimpton Hotel in the Third Ward.
At the meeting, Mark Ernst opened Engberg Anderson’s presentation by noting the company was trying to deal with “a lot conflicting input we’ve got over the last year or so.”
He noted “the eclectic feel of the site,” and his power-point demonstrated that Brady Street has had a great variety of architecture, having been built by different generations using different ideas, methods, and materials. To Ernst, this variety of architecture gave Brady Street its character.
But the alderman for this district, Nik Kovac, demanded a narrower field of view. He wanted the building to blend not just with Brady Street, but with a 350-foot strip on the north side of Brady. He literally asked the architects, “Why don’t you just make model showing just the buildings on either side” of the site — the old Glorioso building and the Saint Hedwig’s Church.
The Glorioso building is actually two structures — a German Renaissance Revival building from 1910, which used to be Hellman’s butcher shop; and a Mediterranean Revival building from the 1920s that was built when the Italians took over the street. Across Humboldt is Saint Hedwig’s Church, a hybrid of Romanesque and Gothic architecture built in 1886.
So Kovac’s narrow swatch of street consists of a polygot of styles and types of buildings that go back at least a thousand years. Not to mention there’s a pagoda inflected Chinese restaurant next to Glorioso and another crazy quilt of architecture across the street.
So where does that leave the architects? There is no recipe that combines one part Roman, one part Gothic, one part German, and one part Mediterranean into a digestible whole.
Ernst might have brought up the Historic Designation Study Report that set up the Brady Street Historic District:
“East Brady Street’s unusual array of architectural styles and building types and the irregular siting of the structures sets it apart from the city’s more typical neighborhood commercial strips which developed over a shorter period of time with greater architectural uniformity,” the report concluded.
In short, if the role of the Historic Preservation Commission is to assure conformity with the district, then there should be great freedom for Ernst within the very eclectic tradition of the street.
Odgen and the Ernst had by now been though a year of meetings and more than 12 iterations of the design. His frustration was clear. Vanessa Koster of The Department of City Development tried to move the meeting along.
The developer, DCD, and the City Plan Commission were on one side of the issue, with Kovac and HPC on the other. But Kovac held his ground.
Kovac had first run for office after losing a fight with the city, which let developer Joel Lee put a parking structure on an empty lot between the home of Kovac’s parents and Downer Avenue.
Kovac is passionate about local control of real estate development. To help his cause he fought to get HPC under the control of the Common Council instead of DCD.
The meeting was kind of a rematch of the Downer fight, Kovac against the city and a real estate developer, only this time the game was being played on his home court. He was the alderman for the district (and council members generally have tremendous autonomy regarding neighborhood decisions) and he had HPC in his pocket.
The commissioners deferred to the alderman. This was Kovac’s meeting.
The meeting took a sharp turn in another directions when Dean Doerrfeld, a Senior Planner for HPC testified. He agreed with Kovac, and said he came to the meeting to say HPC still opposed the project.
And why? “The neighborhood has rhythm,” Doerrfeld said, “but does not have repetition.”
If that was supposed to guide the architects, Whitney Gould wasn’t having any of it. She’s a member of the City Plan Commission, former architecture critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and the only person in the meeting besides the architects who had names for the different styles of buildings on the street.
“A lot of these issues could have been addressed more honestly if the architects hadn’t been so constrained by the literalness of some of these guidelines,” Gould said, “you could read the whole history of domestic architecture on Brady Street. It would have been more productive to let the architects do what they do very well.”
“When we have to go back and second guess everything they are doing,” she continued, “I just sorta yearn for the day when Brady Street and older neighborhoods will be able to be honest expressions of the changes and dynamism in a city.”
Kovac disagreed. “I believe in design by committee,” he countered, “otherwise we just shouldn’t be here and let architects be brilliant on their own.”
Kovac went on to explain how this oversight should work, referring to another building that came before him: “after five or six meetings, we designed the heck out of that. We pushed him (the architect) and changed it and changed it and change it until it met the guidelines. So the architect is still the architect but they either met the bar or they don’t.”
“I am no expert,” Kovac added, “but you know it when it is right.”
Matt Jarosz, HPC commission member, said, “We can’t have this design by committee.” But then went on to elaborate:
“We are trying to make the guidelines clear and vague at the same time. How can we allow those guys to have freedom to do really interesting things? But we are not in a circumstance of a free for all. Come up with something that is appropriate for the time but still giving those guys some freedom to do what they want to do. … We have to work with what the architect interprets the guidelines to be. And they got to drive the bus on the design.”
But this joint meeting had been called in part because the developer and architect had tried to interpret the guidelines for more than a year to no avail. They clearly weren’t able to drive the bus and now this meeting seemed to veering off the road. The meta-discussion of the guidelines was tabled for another time.
The building was then sent back to HPC with a list of requested design changes: wider west windows, different massing of the column, a modification of the bay windows on the corner, and a reconfiguration of the mechanicals on top of the building. Vertical windows were deemed “pedestrian unfriendly”.
Patti Keating Kahn from HPC asked if these changes could be put in bullet point form “because I am kinda confused about each one of them.”
The project and those requested changes got kicked back to HPC again. The minutes from their October 2015 meeting say, “Staff still recommends disapproval based upon the lack of clues relating to age of construction, it’s too regular, lacking in variety and too rectangular. It simply lacks variety to the streetscape, per Mr. Doerrfeld.” Another detailed discussion ensued. Could the building be made more slender? Could spandrels be added?
The project was approved by a 3-2 vote in October, but with “ongoing modifications by staff,” though the dissenters did not like leaving so many things for the staff. The building is going up as I type, some two-and-a-half years after the approval process began, with included some 18 months of various requested changes and iterations. This was the design by committee which Kovac believes in.
Is this the process we want to follow for creating new buildings in Milwaukee? I would agree with Gould, that architects should be allowed to create “honest expressions of the changes and dynamism in a city.” That’s how great cities are built.
Or as Gould put it at another point in the September 2015 meeting: “Guidelines for HPC and CPC are still proscriptive almost to the point of discouraging really good architects from expressing the time and aspirations of this generation… Let architects have more freedom to experiment.”