Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Court Says UWM Can Demolish Columbia Hospital

City loses suit opposing this and may decide not to appeal decision.

By - Jul 11th, 2022 07:52 pm
Building A. Photo by Michael Horne.

Building A. File photo by Michael Horne.

The Historic Preservation Commission‘s attempt to prevent UW-Milwaukee from demolishing the former Columbia Hospital suffered a major legal setback.

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 city must now decide whether to appeal the ruling, but an appeals court ruling against the city carries the risk of invalidating the application of all local historic preservation ordinances against state-owned properties.

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.

A ruling against the city came June 30. “It was probably one of the quickest civil cases to go through Milwaukee County,” said Carson.

“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.

“I think we should have a closed session at our next meeting,” said Bauman.

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 university paid $20.2 million in 2010 for the 1.1-million-square-foot hospital complex at 2015-2025 E. Newport Ave. The oldest portion, an L-shaped building near the intersection of N. Maryland Ave. and E. Hartford Ave., was constructed in 1919 with additions built progressively to the west. UWM officials said the 1919 portion was vacant prior to the university’s acquisition and has remained so, while the university has repurposed newer potions of the hospital.

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.

2020 Photos

One thought on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Court Says UWM Can Demolish Columbia Hospital”

  1. NieWiederKrieg says:

    Allowing real estate developers to buy all the historic properties in Milwaukee (with taxpayer funding) in order to tear them down is a type of perversion…

    Perversion – per·ver·sion /pərˈvərZHən/- noun: perversion; plural noun: perversions – the alteration of something from its original course, meaning, or state to a distortion or corruption of what was first intended.

    Milwaukee’s politicians, bureaucrats, and real estate developers are a bunch of perverts.

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