Fight Over Former Columbia Hospital Heads Back To Court
City appeals ruling, seeks to block UWM's further demolition of hospital.
A panel of three appeals court judges now controls the future of the former Columbia Hospital, and possibly whether local governments can historically protect state-owned buildings.
The City of Milwaukee is appealing a judge’s ruling that UW-Milwaukee could proceed with the demolition of the oldest portion of the former Columbia Hospital. If the city is successful, it could halt the demolition of the building for the second time, while also leaving open the possibility that the building is ultimately demolished.
As Urban Milwaukee reported, UWM, through contractor JP Cullen, began highly visible demolition work, including removing windows, while Historic Preservation Commission members publicly and privately debated whether to appeal the ruling.
The university is seeking to demolish the oldest portions of the hospital 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 and interior demolition work started.
The university paid $20.2 million for the 1.1-million-square-foot hospital complex in 2010. 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 sections of the hospital.
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.
Could It Be Reused As Housing?
UWM officials previously said a memorandum of understanding between the university and area neighborhood associations prevents it from being used for housing. But a copy of that 2012 agreement, labeled as “collaborative framework,” does not explicitly mention housing, nor the building, and instead discusses the need for enhanced cooperation between the parties.
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.
HPC member and Alderman 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.
Preservation Ordinance At Stake?
An appeals court ruling against the city carries the risk of invalidating the application of all local historic preservation ordinances against state-owned properties.
Assistant city attorney Alexander 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.
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 structures are now being demolished.
A full copy of the historic designation report can be found on Urban Milwaukee.