Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Officials Delay St. James Church Proposal

City historic commission votes to hold plan for new apartments near 9th and Wisconsin.

By - Dec 12th, 2017 10:02 am
St. James Church Plans. Rendering by Engberg Anderson Architects.

St. James Church Plans. Rendering by Engberg Anderson Architects.

Developer Joshua Jeffers plans for the redevelopment of the former St. James Episcopal Church will need to revised. The developer had hoped to secure approval to demolish the parish house at the rear of the site at 833 W. Wisconsin Ave. from the Historic Preservation Commission, but the body instead voted to hold the entire matter.

J. Jeffers & Co. intends to redevelop the historic church, which dates back to 1867, into an event venue in a partnership with Hidden Kitchen MKE. To achieve that, Jeffers would demolish the parish house addition added in 1899 and construct a seven-story building that includes an additional event venue and support functions on the lower floors, with apartments on the upper floors. The proposed building is being designed by Engberg Anderson Architects.

The developer, who specializes in complicated projects, was hoping to secure demolition approval in advance of the December 31st deadline to ensure that his application would qualify for federal historic preservation tax credits before Congress potentially eliminates the program. A similar deadline looms in February for the state historic preservation tax credits.

He said “for us to convert the 1899 addition into something that is both historically accurate and built to modern code compliance, it would be enormously costly.” He told the commission “this building has more asbestos in it proportionally than any other building I’ve seen.”

“It became evident why this property has been for sale for many years, it’s just too darn costly to turn it into anything else,” said Jeffers. Those thoughts were echoed by Engberg Anderson partner Mark Ernst who said his firm has studied reusing the building four or five different plans. “When Josh called I said ‘we have plans!'”

Jeffers proposal got support from John Hennessy, who owns the adjacent St. James Apartments. Hennessy told the commission “I don’t think that there is any other way than to demolish the parish house.” Otherwise, he said, a developer can’t “generate the investment necessary to do the job” and “do the historic preservation that will preserve this section of Wisconsin Avenue.”

St. James church, whose history goes back 150 years ago, held its last service on November 1st, with the congregation folding at that time. It has been listed for sale for a number of years by the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee. With dwindling membership, the congregation could no longer afford the expense of maintaining the large facility.

City Historic Preservation staffer Tim Askin told the commission “this is a very serious proposal to demolish an entire wing of a locally and nationally designated property.” In his report to the commission, Askin raised a number of concerns about the proposal including the massing of the proposed new building, the feasibility of preserving the parish house and the need for a design that better respects the nearby historic buildings. The HPC staff recommendation was to hold the matter.

“There are a lot of unknowns at this point that we have no answers to yet,” said Askin’s colleague Carlen Hatala.

Jeffers admitted the new building wasn’t intended as the final product. “The building that was proposed was intended to be a middle of the road, a starting point.”

That wasn’t enough to assuage the concerns of the commission. Commissioner and area alderman Robert Bauman said he would move to reject the request today if forced to vote on it. Jeffers responded that he would accept the hold in that case.

Commissioner Marion Clendenen-Acosta suggested that Jeffers study what can be preserved from the parish house, including possibly parts of the facade that face W. Wisconsin Ave.

The commission unanimously approved the hold.

The proposal can next be considered at the commission’s January meeting. At that point the outcome of the federal tax bill will likely be known, which should add clarity regarding the use of federal historic preservation tax credits.

For more details on the proposal and historic church, see my November column examining the proposal.


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One thought on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Officials Delay St. James Church Proposal”

  1. Lucy Cooper says:

    Great reporting, as usual. But I do have a correction. The Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee did not put the building up for sale in August 2104. It was the congregation of St.James represented by iis Vestry that voted to sell, paid for an appraisal, interviewed brokers and engaged Ogden Realty and spent Parish Funds to make the building stable and saleable. The Diocesan role was to approve our work – which they did. We saw that we could not stay and wanted the building to be sold to someone who would maintain at least the 1867 church. We knew all the impediments the historic designation would create for any major renovation affecting the outside. That’s why the ultimate sale price was so low at $425k.

    We had indeed worked since 2008 trying to find a developer that would renovate the building in a way that would allow the congregation to remain. And we worked with a wonderful architect from Engberg Anderson who prepared plans for several rennovations. But, in the end, we could not find a partner and we could not go on without one. In May 2014 we made the wrenching decision to sell, still hoping to move together. The property was listed in August 2014 and Mr. Jeffers’ offer came in May 2017. Time defeated us and we did in fact disband.

    The Parish officially closed November 9, and, at THAT point the Diocese became the owner and I and the Jr. Warden signed the closing documents as deputized Diocesan representatives- and the Diocese got the $$. That was onNovember 30th.

    I and the former members wish Mr. Jeffers the best and trust he will put together a revised plan that can gain HPC approval and preserve the original William Gordon Lloyd neo Gothic Church.
    I hope this doesn’t become a case of the perfect becoming the enemy of the good.

    I know this comment may not be of general interest but I do feel ourcongregation has been portrayed as hapless losers in the reporting on the building sale. I wish to correct that impression.

    Lucy Cooper
    Final Senior Warden, St. James’

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