Coggs Building Could Be Abandoned
Century-old building on 12th and Vliet a victim of deferred maintenance, too expensive to restore, may be sold.
The Marcia P. Coggs Human Services Center, 1220 W. Vliet St., may become a casualty of Milwaukee County’s massive backlog of deferred maintenance.
The 222,000-square-foot building was built in phases between 1910 and 1923 by F.W. Schuster & Co, and operated as Schuster’s Department Store until 1961, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society. The department store turned this section of Vliet into one of “Milwaukee’s chief neighborhood shopping hubs,” according to the historical society. It was sold in 1963 to Milwaukee County for its Department of Welfare.
A recent analysis of the financial viability of the Coggs building for the county, under a number of different scenarios, indicated the building is getting close to no longer being financially useful to the county. Because of long term underinvestment, it’s estimated that the building will require $46 million over the next 20 years.
Currently, the county has staff from its Department of Health and Human Services (DHS) and its Division on Aging working in the building. It also has a lease with the state Department of Health Services for a portion of the building, out of which it manages income maintenance and child care subsidy programs.
The state pays $3.5 million annually for the lease, which covers the approximately $1.6 million in annual operating costs for the building. The lease is month-to-month, which allows the county to charge more but also makes it difficult for the county to plan long term for the building, according to a 2020 report by facilities management.
Recently, Peter Nilles, director of facilities planning, told the county board’s Finance Committee that the state has never expressed the desire to be a long-term tenant.
In March the state released a request for proposals indicating it was looking to relocate its staff currently at the Coggs building. The county DHS has approximately 100,000 square feet at Coggs and is looking for 49,000 square feet elsewhere.
The $46 million in long-term capital investments, the estimated $4.6 million per floor for renovations for new tenants and $500,000 to $1 million in accessibility upgrades needed for the building make it a financially losing proposition under nearly every scenario.
The report indicates the most “advantageous scenario” would be to sell the building at some point. While the current situation continuing long term with the state as a tenant is the most favorable, it’s also the most unlikely, Nilles said.
That’s not to say the building couldn’t have some value for the county in the future. The county has needed a new Public Safety Building for years, a project likely to cost the county several hundred million dollars. The Coggs building could be used as swing space for county staff if that project ever gets underway.
DHHS may vacate the Coggs building under the next phase of its ‘No Wrong Door’ policy, which aims to make the entire gamut of the division’s services accessible at every point of contact for the public. But that decision hasn’t been made, and the county is evaluating a number of scenarios for the future of the building.
Supervisor Sequanna Taylor said one of the benefits of the Coggs building has been that people accessing more than one social service could get the assistance they needed, “kind of in one place.”
“It looks like things will be broken up,” she said, “so that’s kind of a hard thing to swallow seeing the people that go there need several services and not just one.”
No decisions have been made regarding the future of the Coggs building, but its history of underinvestment is familiar given the county’s annual structural deficit and the continuing imbalance between capital projects and capital funding.
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