Court Says UWM Can Demolish Columbia Hospital
City loses suit opposing this and may decide not to appeal decision.
Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Kevin Martens ruled that the city’s requirement is a local permitting matter from which the state is exempt.
The court battle isn’t unexpected. The university is seeking to demolish the building, first built in 1919, to create green space on its landlocked campus. The university originally planned to repurpose the building, but moved to demolish it starting in 2019. It secured state approval in 2020 to demolish the building.
After a construction fence went up, a Milwaukee resident applied in February 2022 to locally historically designate the structure. The historic commission and Milwaukee Common Council both approved the designation, but university officials said the school could still pursue with demolition.
On April 29, the city filed a lawsuit seeking to bar the University of Wisconsin System from moving forward.
“We also sought declaratory relief essentially about the whole issue of the HPC and where it gets authority to regulate properties,” said assistant city attorney Alexander Carson to the commission Monday.
“The question is whether we should appeal this ruling,” said commissioner and Alderman Robert Bauman.
Carson declined to provide public comment on whether an appeal was warranted, noting it was privileged attorney-client information. “I think we can reframe issues we have brought,” said the attorney in limited remarks on a potential strategy.
The city will soon be on the clock for filing an appeal. Carson said an impending notice would give the city 45 days to decide whether to respond.
“This sets a precedent for going forward with state buildings throughout the state of Wisconsin,” said commission chair Patti Keating Kahn.
Carson said the broadest reading of the ruling would indicate that the city no longer has preservation authority over state-owned buildings.
Bauman noted it might not be that simple. The matter right now governs just this specific case, but an appeal could establish a statewide ruling if the city loses. “Correct,” said Carson.
The commission agreed. The next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 1.
Sources who discussed the ruling last week with Urban Milwaukee indicated it leaves open the possibility of placing buildings in broader historic districts, instead of designating individual properties.
The city’s April designation covered only what UWM labels Northwest Quadrant Building A, the oldest portion of the former hospital.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment on the case. But Carson said he was told that the university system could cooperate with preservation requirements on other properties on a case-by-case basis.
Milwaukee’s historic preservation ordinance, which applies to the exterior of designated properties, does not completely prohibit demolition. An applicant needs to obtain a certificate of appropriateness for demolition, which can be granted by the council over the objection of the commission.
Council members, when the property was designated, said they would consider such a demolition request. There is a wider latitude to consider economic factors on demolition than there is with the initial designation.
The original building was designed in the Georgian Revival style by the Chicago-based firm of Schmidt, Garden and Martin. An early expansion was designed by Alexander C. Eschweiler.
UWM is reportedly spending $232,000 annually on the 1919 building and would need to spend $6 million to demolish and clear the site. According to a UWM report, it would cost $96.5 million to reconfigure the building for STEM space, which the university views as its most pressing need.
UWM is also restricted from using the former building for housing as a condition of its purchase. The restriction comes in the form of a memorandum of understanding agreed to with the surrounding neighborhoods. Bauman, in April, suggested the agreement could be amended and then-eastside-Alderman Nik Kovac said the situation has changed given that the university has built new residence halls off campus since the acquisition. According to discussions with preservation advocates, at least one party has expressed interest in potentially purchasing the property.
The structure is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A full copy of the historic designation report can be found on Urban Milwaukee.