Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Conversion of 1902 School Starting

Construction starts on long-planned project to turn old Phillis Wheatley School into apartments.

By - Apr 19th, 2021 06:21 pm
Phillis Wheatley School in April 2021. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Phillis Wheatley School in April 2021. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Another former Milwaukee Public Schools building will become apartments. Royal Capital Group has closed on its purchase of the former Phillis Wheatley School, 2442 N. 20th St., and is set to begin construction work.

The firm will redevelop the four-story building into 42 units of affordable housing and construct a new building on the southern portion of the 3.8-acre site that contains an additional 40 units. The units would have a mix of one, two and three-bedroom layouts.

Fifteen of the units would be rented at market rates, with the remainder set aside at reduced rates for those making no more than 60 percent of the area’s median income. The majority of the financing for the $22 million project comes from low-income housing tax credits.

The school was the first that Royal Capital president Kevin Newell attended when his family moved to Milwaukee.

The 84,000-square-foot building that bears her name was originally known as the Tenth Ward School and later the 20th Street School. The school, closed since 2005, was originally constructed in 1902 according to a city report. It was designed by the firm of Van Ryn & DeGelleke. Additions, one of which relies on a skywalk, were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s.

Phillis Wheatley, who lived from 1753 to 1784, was the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry and the first to make a living from writing. She was emancipated from slavery in 1773 after the publication of her book.

“This development is vested with great storytelling. Not only providing much-needed, quality housing, services and programming that will contribute to the ongoing rejuvenation of the 53206 ZIP code, but it also pays tribute to an incredibly inspiring Black woman,” said Newell in a statement.

The redevelopment was first proposed in 2018 and the city approved a $1.05 million tax incremental financing (TIF) district in 2019 to close a financing gap in the project. At that point, the project was expected to open by late 2021 and referred to as a $19.4 million project. The developer now hopes to complete the work in spring 2022 and referred to the development as a $22 million project.

The TIF district is developer financed, with Royal Capital putting up the initial capital and then being rebated the funds, up to $1.05 million plus interest, via property tax payments. The structure puts the risk for repayment on the developer.

Rents are expected to range from $370 to $1,125 per month.

Engberg Anderson Architects is leading the complex’s design. Greenfire Management Services is serving as the general contractor.

The financing stack is complicated, a consistent theme in new affordable housing projects. The project relies on low-income housing tax credits ($11.18 million), a mortgage from Chase Bank ($2.77 million), historic preservation tax credits ($2.67 million), the TIF district ($1.05 million), a grant from the city’s allocation of federal HOME funds ($400,000), a Federal Home Loan Bank grant ($900,000) and a deferred developer fee ($453,1000).

The firm paid $465,000 for the property.

Because the project is receiving over $1 million in city funding, the developer will be required to have 40 percent of the construction work hours be performed by unemployed or underemployed city residents.

The school is approximately one mile north of another N. 20th St. school redevelopment. Gorman & Co. is redeveloping the long-closed, fire-damaged William McKinley School into affordable housing for military families.

Royal Capital celebrated the completion of the long-delayed Good Hope Library project last year. The firm developed an affordable housing complex, Fortitude Apartments, above the new, first-floor library. Its market-rate Five Fifty Ultra Lofts development also opened across from Fiserv Forum.

The firm’s biggest project to date, the $84.5 million ThriveOn King development in the former Schuster’s department store, is ramping up.

Renderings & Plans

School Photos

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