Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

$44 Million Soldiers Home Project Launched

Huge group of politicians, dignitaries, salute project to redevelop Civil War-era VA complex.

By - Sep 20th, 2019 03:51 pm
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Old Main at Soldiers' Home. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Old Main at Soldiers’ Home. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Leaders from virtually every level of government, historic preservation advocacy and affordable housing development gathered Friday morning to celebrate the start of work on the long sought after redevelopment of Old Main and five other buildings on the historic Soldiers Home complex.

Built to house returning soldiers after the Civil War, much of the complex, located behind the Milwaukee Veteran’s Administration Medical Center, has been vacant for decades. But come spring 2021, veterans will again reside in 101 apartments in the century-and-a-half-old complex.

The Madison-based Alexander Company, after years of fundraising, ceremonially kicked off the $43.8 million redevelopment project in front of Old Main, the largest building in the complex. Old Main will be home to 70 apartments available for veterans at below-market rates, with three duplexes, the former chaplain’s residence and former Soldiers’ Home headquarters also being converted to housing to bring the total to 101 units. Support services will be offered to the residents.

“Never have we taken on something so sacred as Soldiers’ Home,” said firm president Joe Alexander after ticking off the firm’s nationwide list of projects including a train station, hotel and courthouse.

VA Medical Center director Dr. Daniel Zomchek said it left him nearly speechless that the effort, which involves over 13 funding sources, came together and would again allow veterans to live in the buildings so close to the modern hospital that provides the full complement of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs services. Alexander is redeveloping the buildings as part of a 75-year enhanced use lease with the VA.

The impact of the project was felt when Medal of Honor recipient Gary Wetzel was escorted to and from the podium as the audience gave him a standing ovation. Wetzel, a Vietnam War veteran, told a humorous story about how he used to sit by the fountain in front of Old Main, where the ceremony was held, to feed squirrels, before pivoting to a more serious thanks on behalf of veterans. “It’s going to give a veteran a new lease on life,” said Wetzel.

Joseph P. Galvan, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s regional administrator based out of Chicago, said the development is important for many reasons, but most significantly because of who it is for. “It’s the home for those that put this country first, themselves second.”

His remarks were echoed by Mayor Tom Barrett, who said he’s sought a way to save the buildings since he was in Congress in the 1990s. “One of the things you learn in government and politics is that you never give up,” said Barrett. “Everbody came together because it is the right thing to do for our veterans.”

Governor Tony Evers was effusive in his praise for the project. “Not only does this project go a long way to ensure homelessness is never a concern for our veterans community, but it ensures they have the resources to be successful.”

U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin noted that it’s not the architecture, but what is contained within it that’s most important. She said the redevelopment would allow the walls to absorb more stories from future generations.

Aimee Jorjani, chair of the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, said she grew up two miles from the complex. She characterized the project as “a success story that I continue to brag about back in Washington.” Her organization has now played a key part in that, granting the project $500,000.

The project relies on a dizzying array of financing sources to bring it to fruition, including two different sets of low-income housing tax credits, state and federal historic preservation tax credits, $2.5 million from a fundraising campaign led by the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, $500,000 from the Home Depot Foundation, including $100,000 in gift cards, $200,000 from project general contractor J.P. Cullen, a military construction loan, $600,000 from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago, $125,000 from the city’s Housing Trust Fund, an approximately $1.5 million loan from the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) and a $547,000 loan from the Milwaukee Economic Development Authority.

“I believe it’s the first time ever for the package we have put together,” said WHEDA executive director Joaquin Altoro. Alexander project manager John Beck later confirmed that, saying it was a one-of-a-kind deal on a national basis for adaptive reuse of an existing building and the first of its kind in the Midwest to use both the nine percent and four percent low-income housing tax credits.

National Equity Fund President & CEO Matthew Reilein, whose organization purchased over $26 million in tax credits to provide equity to the project, characterized it as the type of project that makes you want to come to work every day.

The redeveloped buildings, to be managed by the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee (HACM) when its complete, will be property-tax exempt.

The speakers were joined by a who’s who roster of politicians, developers and advocates. State Representative Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), an Iraq war veteran, was joined by Senator Janet Bewley (D-Ashland). WHEDA’s board chair Ivan Gamboa was in the crowd, as was former WHEDA deputy Brian Schimming. Architects David Uihlein and Scott Ramlow, whose firm Uihlein/Wilson Ramlow/Stein is leading the design, were also in the crowd. HACM was represented by Antonio Perez and deputy Willie Hines, Jr. Alderman Michael Murphy, in whose district the complex resides, was there. Historic Preservation Commission Patti Keating Kahn and newly-hired MPA executive director Craig Wiroll were in the crowd, as were PR mavens Carl Mueller and Thad Nation. Developer Kalan Haywood was on hand, as were Brewers Community Foundation director Cecelia Gore and BMO Harris Bank director of community giving Raquel Filmanowicz. Foley & Lardner real estate attorney Mick Hatch watched from the back, having done his work compiling the financing stack before the groundbreaking.

Joining the dignitaries were the real stars of the show — a number of veterans, VA employees and veteran support advocates.

The event ended with a standing ovation for Medal of Honor recipient Wetzel.

In The Shadow of Miller Park

With a hot playoff race underway in Major League Baseball and the home of the Milwaukee Brewers, Miller Park, visible in the distance, the political leaders took the opportunity to humorously tout the Brewers rivalry with the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals. But you’ll want to be careful who you take advice from if you’re wagering on the games.

Galvan, whose office is in Chicago, got things started by suggesting “we can all agree we hate the St. Louis Cardinals.” Altoro responded that what Galvan saw in the distance was not a cheese factory, but a championship factory (no championships has ever been won in the building or by the Brewers).

Evers drew laughs by suggesting he couldn’t figure out how the Cubs and Cardinals could both lose as they finish the season by playing six games against each other. The former educator suggested if they simply alternated losing that would be best for the Brewers. But that’s actually not the case: the Brewers chances of making the postseason would be best aided by the Cubs losing every game. As it stands today, Fangraphs gives the Cardinals a 95.5 percent of making the playoffs with the surging Brewers at 63.7 percent and the Cubs at 40.4 percent.

Perhaps the best, and most on topic, sports reference of the event came from Baldwin. The senator noted that last week she guided guests through the archway at Camp Randall, a former Civil War camp in Madison now better known for the football stadium, and has found correspondence that notes at least one of her ancestors started his service in the Civil War walking the same route.

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One thought on “Eyes on Milwaukee: $44 Million Soldiers Home Project Launched”

  1. Andrew Docktor says:

    This is great to hear. We toured the grounds as part of Open Door Milwaukee, and we were amazed by the beauty of the structures. They are so worthy for preservation and renovations.

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