Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

UWM Demolishing Former Columbia Hospital

City could still sue, but time is running out.

By - Aug 12th, 2022 02:48 pm
Demolition is underway on the former Columbia Hospital. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Demolition is underway at the former Columbia Hospital. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Demolition work is now proceeding on the former Columbia Hospital on the UW-Milwaukee campus while the Historic Preservation Commission appears poised not to appeal a ruling that limited its authority over state-owned buildings.

The university is seeking to demolish the building, first built in 1919, to create green space on its landlocked campus. It has pursued demolition through a public process since 2019, but a petition for historic designation was not submitted until February 2022 after a construction fence went up.

The commission designated the building as historic on April 4, and the council and mayor affirmed the decision later that month. The city filed a lawsuit on April 29 that sought to block the university system from moving forward with demolition without receiving the proper city approvals.

But Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Kevin Martens ruled on June 30 that the city’s requirement is a local permitting matter from which the state is exempt.

“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 in briefing the commission on July 11. The case was dismissed that same day.

Carson advised the commission that a formal notice would trigger a 45-day deadline to appeal, which based on online court records would give the city only a few days left to appeal the matter.

The commission didn’t provide instruction to Carson to appeal the ruling, and instead scheduled further discussion for a closed session meeting on Aug 1. That meeting took place, but without any public action or debate on advancing an appeal.

And while the broader question about city authority stands, the specific case may soon be moot. Demolition work is progressing on the long-vacant structure’s interior.

An appeal could make matters worse for the commission. An appeals court ruling against the city carries the risk of invalidating the application of all local historic preservation ordinances against state-owned properties.

“This sets a precedent for going forward with state buildings throughout the state of Wisconsin,” said commission chair Patti Keating Kahn on July 11.

Carson said the broadest reading of the June 30 ruling would indicate that the city no longer has preservation authority over state-owned buildings.

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.

About The Building

The city’s April designation covered only what UWM labels Northwest Quadrant Building A, the oldest portion of the former hospital.

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. The firm was a prolific designer of hospitals, but this is its only Milwaukee project. An early expansion was designed by famed Milwaukee architect Alexander C. Eschweiler. Both of those parts are now being demolished.

UWM is reportedly spending $232,000 annually on the vacant 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. Ald. Robert Bauman, in April, suggested the agreement could be amended and then-Alderman for the area Nik Kovac said the situation has changed given that the university has built new residence halls off campus. According to discussions with preservation advocates, at least one party has expressed interest in potentially purchasing the property for use as housing and said it is well suited for such a conversion.

UWM associate vice chancellor for facilities, planning and management Melissa Spadanuda said in April it is not practical to sell the building because it is in the middle of its campus.

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

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Related Legislation: File 211686

One thought on “Eyes on Milwaukee: UWM Demolishing Former Columbia Hospital”

  1. 45 years in the City says:

    I don’t like our city loosing historic buildings, but in this case the preservation attempts were not timely. UW-M bought the building in 2010 (12 years ago) and its intention to redevelop the property (including some demolition) was not a secret.

    The appropriate time to have raised preservation concerns and would have been several years ago.

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