Officials Delay St. James Church Proposal
City historic commission votes to hold plan for new apartments near 9th and Wisconsin.
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!'”
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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