Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

After UWM Lawsuit Loss, City Could Rewrite Historic Preservation Ordinance

Change would be a safeguard on state-owned buildings.

By - Oct 10th, 2022 08:07 pm
Demolition progress as of Oct. 7 at Columbia Hospital. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Demolition progress as of Oct. 7 at Columbia Hospital. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The city’s failed bid to historically protect Columbia Hospital on the UW-Milwaukee campus could change the structure of the city’s historic preservation ordinance.

As Urban Milwaukee reported immediately following the hearing last week, Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Glenn Yamahiro struck another blow to the city’s hopes of protecting the 1919 hospital. Yamahiro denied the city’s request for an injunction, allowing the university to continue with demolition even as the city fights the University of Wisconsin System in appeals court over its ability to historically protect buildings.

“There is nothing legally preventing UWM from moving forward with the full demolition of the property,” said assistant city attorney Alexander Carson to the Historic Preservation Commission on Monday. According to court documents filed by the UW System, full-scale demolition is to begin Oct. 16. Windows have already been removed, as have a number of other fixtures.

“The arguments we were going to raise don’t seem to have the effectiveness that we hoped they would,” he said, casting concern on the viability of the remainder of the case.

At issue is the ability of the city to regulate state-owned buildings. The two sides have argued over technical aspects of zoning, permitting and historic preservation ordinances. Those arguments have shown something, said Carson.

“They actually revealed some specific vulnerabilities in our ordinance that I think we can fix,” said the attorney. It’s something that also came up in a discussion with a national historic preservation group.

Carson is suggesting the city pursue changing its ordinance to involve a zoning overlay. It would sidestep an issue where the preservation ordinance is considering a permitting matter.

“I think we would have a very good case then to have regulation over state-owned historic properties,” he said.

The attorney suggested he would pursue the change, if the commission agreed, with the Wisconsin Department of Justice. University officials and the department, which represents the UW System, had expressed a willingness to work with the city on preservation issues.

“I would recommend that we go ahead and do what Alex is proposing,” said commission chair Patti Keating Kahn. She noted the state has several other historic buildings. “Looking forward to working with the state, not against the state.”

The commission unanimously endorsed Carson’s strategy. However, two commissioners with possible insight into the matter were absent. UW-Milwaukee architecture professor Matt Jarosz and attorney and alderman Robert Bauman both were excused from the meeting.

About the UWM Lawsuit

“How many millions are we going to burn up here trying to save a building that has been vacant for 20 years and is now quite popular?” asked Yamahiro during last week’s hearing. The university has alleged it has a substantial cost burden in maintaining the vacant structure while the legal matter plays out.

The city formally approved designating the structure as historic in April, which established the requirement for UWM to apply for a certificate of appropriateness to demolish or modify the 103-year-old structure. Both parties discussed potential litigation during the process, and the city filed for an injunction to block any demolition. But Judge Kevin Martens ruled on June 30 that the city’s requirement is a local permitting matter from which the state is exempt. The city appealed the ruling in late August, but in the interim demolition work ramped up.

UWM 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. 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.

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.

Aug. 12 Photos

2020 Photos

3 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: After UWM Lawsuit Loss, City Could Rewrite Historic Preservation Ordinance”

  1. gerrybroderick says:

    UWM decision to destroy this historic building while the legal system weighed opposing arguments is a common strategy employed by self interested institutions to determine outcomes regardless of court rulings. It seems obvious that after a very brief process of “sifting and winnowing” the University Administration said: “Screw them! Full speed ahead!”

  2. mkeumkenews09 says:

    It is time for the city to stop bending over to support money’d NIMBY’s. That is all this is about.

  3. says:

    That’s the takeaway here? That the city needs more power, and not that the existing rules are out of touch with what citizens need and want?

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