Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Council Says Marcus Center Not Historic

Votes down designation and compromise to save Kiley grove with a friends group.

By - May 7th, 2019 12:22 pm
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Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in April 2019. Photo from the City of Milwaukee.

Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in April 2019. Photo from the City of Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee Common Council voted to reject permanent historic designation for the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, clearing the way for the organization to undertake a large redevelopment of the complex at 929 N. Water St.

Designed in 1968 by architect Harry Weese, the county-owned complex includes a grove of Horse Chestnut trees laid out by landscape architect Dan Kiley. The non-profit Marcus Center organization, led by Paul Mathews, unveiled a significant redevelopment plan in December 2018 in response to declining county support and the coming loss of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra as a tenant.

That plan soon met with an impediment as the city’s Historic Preservation Committee voted to declare the Marcus Center historic, mostly to save the Kiley grove. But on April 30th, the council’s Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development (ZND) Committee voted to overturn that decision. Now it was the full council’s turn, but Alderman Cavalier Johnson proposed an amendment to hold any decision on the downtown complex’s historic merits for now and instead approve a compromise proposal whereby a “friends of” group would have been established to maintain and make accessibility improvements to the grove, but would not have any stake in improvements to the rest of the grounds and building.

“My thought was that we could come to a happy medium and provide an opportunity for both sides to not get everything they want,” said Johnson.

But Johnson’s motion failed on a 7-to-8 vote, with council members Milele A. Coggs, Khalif Rainey, Chantia Lewis, Michael Murphy, Mark Borkowski, Terry Witkowski, Russell W. Stamper, II and Ashanti Hamilton voting against the move.

The proposal found support from Ald. Robert Bauman, who has advocated for historic designation in his role on the Historic Preservation Commission and at the ZND committee’s four-hour-long hearing on the matter.

Historical designation would have been applied only to the grove, with the non-profit, public and privately funded Marcus Center allowed to make a host of other changes to the Milwaukee County-owned facility. Bauman said the city’s historic preservation staff and City Clerk Jim Owczarski recently met and determined such a designation was feasible.

Kovac said the group could function similar to Lake Park Friends in his district. The group does not control the county park, but has raised substantial funding for maintenance and improvements for the park.

But Johnson’s argument failed to win over Alderwoman Coggs who voted against the designation at committee. Reiterating her frustration with the county she expressed at committee, Coggs added: “it is extremely disturbing to me that we are even having this conversation about the grove or the building.” She said the issue was a county problem that is hampered by changes in state law that deny the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors a vote on changes to non-park facilities.

Ald. Lewis raised questions about designating living things. “How do you save a grove that is dying?” she asked.

Landscape architect Jennifer Current and architect Mark Debrauske, who nominated the 3.65-acre complex for historic designation, have advocated for a long-term plan to replace any trees or the entire grove as part of a long-term maintenance plan. The Marcus Center intends to remove the 36-tree grove and replace it with two rows of nine trees as part of a plan to unify the grounds.

The Marcus Center recently removed four trees from the grove with the city’s approval. The city’s forestry staff has disputed assertions from the Marcus Center that the grove is failing.

After Johnson’s proposal was rejected, Bauman then made a last-ditch effort, moving to reverse the ZND committee’s rejection of the historical designation and designate the entire complex as historic.

Bauman’s motion failed on a 4-to-11 vote, with only Jose G. Perez, Kovac, Bauman and Tony Zielinski in favor. Johnson, Robert Donovan and Nikiya Dodd, who had voted for the compromise, rejected the full designation.

The Marcus Center for the Performing Arts did not provide a statement on the matter by the time of publication.

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More about the Marcus Center redevelopment

One thought on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Council Says Marcus Center Not Historic”

  1. Barbara Richards says:

    Thanks Aldermen Bauman and Johnson. I fear the council is shortsighted on this. I have enjoyed the grove as is. I walked through the other day and saw the stump scars and gave a few trees a tender touch. Said my thanks for their service over the last half century. We will soon find we miss their multiple ecosystem services. Grass lawn does not do half as much as a grove of trees for our people and place. Summer heat is coming and tonite the rain is falling in a deluge.

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