UWM Demolishing Former Columbia Hospital
City could still sue, but time is running out.
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.
“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.
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 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.
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Related Legislation: File 211686