Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Former MPS School to Become Hotel

Ambassador Hotel will turn classrooms into suites.

By - Sep 19th, 2017 11:55 am
Ambassador Suites. Rendering by Quorum Architects.

Ambassador Suites. Rendering by Quorum Architects.

Once the state takes its boot off Milwaukee’s neck the city and private developers can get to work improving Milwaukee neighborhoods.

Alderman Nik Kovac used the metaphor to slam a state law that prevented the city from selling surplus Milwaukee Public Schools properties to anyone but other school operators for a period of two years. The zoning committee member stated “We are on the ground trying to make good decisions for neighborhoods and people are trying to advance their ideology.”

Why was Common Council’s Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee debating the growing preference for voucher schools among Republicans in Madison? The two-year restriction recently expired on the former Wisconsin Avenue School at 2708 W. Wisconsin Ave. Now a proposal is moving forward that would convert the building into a hotel and hopefully serve as a major catalyst for redeveloping the blighted area around W. Wisconsin Ave. and N. 27th St.

Developer Rick Wiegand, who owns and operates the Ambassador Hotel at 2308 W. Wisconsin Ave., would purchase the school for $200,000 from the city and convert the 92,600 square-foot building into large suites. The school, which was originally built in 1919, sits on a two-acre site.

The developer has been targeting the site for over a year, but could only recently make an offer to purchase the site. He was the only respondent to a request for proposals published by the city in July.

The redevelopment plan, which would be supported in part by pre-approved historic preservation tax credits, would also include the creation of banquet space, meeting rooms, a fitness center and a restaurant space.

Wiegand noted he will convert each of the classrooms to a suite, leading to 23 total rooms in the hotel. He noted “the property lends itself nicely to creating large suites that have separate bedrooms with a great room concept.” According to Wiegand the rooms vary in size from 900 to 1,000 square-feet. The former coat room in each classroom will become the bathroom. The common amenities will be in the lower levels of the building.

The developer will invest $15 million in the project and hopes to open the new hotel in the summer of 2019. According to Department of City Development Deputy Commissioner Martha Brown, Wiegand will need to apply for a zoning variance for the hotel to secure final design approval. Quorum Architects is leading the project design.

Wiegand’s interest in the project is clearly not just to expand his successful hotel operation. In 2015 the developer purchased the former Milwaukee County City Campus immediately north of the former school for $272,000. Wiegand noted “As I’ve tried to develop City Campus, parties that I have had in there have asked about the future of the school.” He now has an answer for that question, and intends to use the suites as an amenity for potential tenants including the meeting rooms and dining space.

The developer told the committee that the dining space will open onto a terrace to the north facing the City Campus buildings. This will also allow guests access to a small parking lot on the property, and give them access to a shared parking lot across N. 28th St. That parking lot, part of the City Campus property, will soon be better connected to the two properties as the city has already approved vacating N. 28th St. from W. Wisconsin Ave. to W. Wells St. to unify the parcels.

The city’s Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee unanimously approved the land sale. It now must go before the full Common Council.

The site is one of many targeted by the Near West Side Partners for redevelopment. The non-profit organization, of which Wiegand participates in, unveiled the results of their design charette last summer.


Wiegand Praised by Bauman

The proposal was met with praise from area alderman and nearby resident Robert Bauman who stated  “He has proven himself to be a very successful developer, in terms of turning the Ambassador Hotel into a first rate facility when it was previously, frankly, a crack hotel.” Bauman said “if anyone can make a successful development go forward at this location, it’s Mr. Wiegand.”

The alderman noted that Wiegand has also purchased the properties on the west side of N. 27th St. from W. Wells St. to W. Kilbourn Ave. Bauman characterized those properties as “beset with perpetual and persistent blight.”

Bauman, according to Brown’s presentation, was also behind a small provision in the deal which will set back the fence near N. 27th St. and W. Wisconsin Ave. That is being done to expand the narrow sidewalk and bus shelter in the area.

The intersection contains some of the most active bus stops in the Milwaukee County Transit System. It is also slated to a stop on the proposed East-West bus rapid transit route. Bauman, who has been critical of the project, has supported dedicated lanes for the BRT project on this stretch of the route.

The area alderman, who championed buying and demolishing a problem gas station across N. 27th St. from the school, has another reason to celebrate the deal. That site, which is now an empty lot, will be able to be more readily be redeveloped thanks to a utility infrastructure change to the site. Utility lines serving the school currently cross the former gas station site. Those will be removed and instead routed towards the City Campus property according to Wiegand.

MPS Gets Proceeds, But After Paying the Cost

Milwaukee Public Schools will receive the full proceeds from the sale. According to Brown, the school district has paid carrying costs estimated at $60,000 annually to maintain the property as is. A city report lists the property as vacant since 2007, having been declared surplus in 2009. The two year sale moratorium was in effect a silent tax on the district by the state.

The school is one of many in the process of being converted to new uses after the two-year moratorium expired. The former Garfield Avenue School is being converted to apartments. Gorman and Co. is planning to convert the former Fifth Street School and the former William McKinley School to apartments.

A city report indicates that a number of operators expressed interest in the Wisconsin Avenue School, but none submitted a purchase offer.

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3 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Former MPS School to Become Hotel”

  1. Rich says:

    Odd take on that law by Kovac….unless my memory is failing me, I thought the city wanted protection from being forced to sell buildings to voucher operators…in effect, the law worked as they desired here (they lost the St. Marcus case on the near north side though)

  2. As a former resident of this area, I have one word. Hooray! This is the kind of development that will improve the quality of life for everyone in this area.

  3. Tim says:

    Rich, Kovac is saying that the state law prevented a building like this from being sold to a developer for the first 2 years it was available.

    The city doesn’t like the law, because it keeps the property from paying property taxes for an additional 2 years and potentially keep the property as exempt if somehow a choice school buys the buildings.

    MPS had to keep the building vacant & maintain it ($60,000/year per the article), plus there is the possibility of foregoing a more lucrative offer from a for-profit development.

    The end result worked for the city’s interests despite the law.

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