Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Historic Commission Rejects Mitchell Street Demolition

Five-story, 55-unit building sought. Developer could win appeal to Common Council.

By - Dec 7th, 2022 04:41 pm
1101-1113 W. Historic Mitchell St. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

1101-1113 W. Historic Mitchell St. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

City of Milwaukee officials are at odds over whether to allow the demolition of a historically-protected structure in order to facilitate the potential development of an affordable apartment building on W. Historic Mitchell St.

On Monday, the Historic Preservation Commission narrowly denied first-time developer Zuwena Cotton‘s request to demolish the two-story building at 1101-1113 W. Historic Mitchell St., but the Common Council could overrule the commission. And based on recent history and the opinions of two key members, it appears such a decision is likely.

Council President Jose G. Perez, the area’s alderman, is supporting the project, and in a surprising development, so is the council’s leading preservation advocate, Robert Bauman.

Cotton purchased the Art Deco-style building in September 2020 for $350,000. “I got it at a really good price,” she told the commission. The structure dates back to 1895 and was long a home for The Grand department store. She said her initial plan was to redevelop it as a mixed-use structure with housing on the upper floor. “Because of the layout of the building, that’s something that’s just not possible,” she said.

“The building was already in poor condition,” said Cotton of why she wants to tear it down now.

Her plan is to apply for competitively-awarded low-income housing tax credits to develop The Encore, a five-story, 55-unit building with first-floor commercial space.

But historic commission staffer Carlen Hatala said the existing building is a contributing structure to the Mitchell Street Historic District and recommended denial of Cotton’s proposal. “Replacement buildings in historic areas begins the unraveling of the district,” she said. Hatala said the building’s role as the last remnant of a historic department store started by an immigrant was a reason for preservation and the scale and design details in Cotton’s replacement don’t mesh with the district. She said another owner could preserve the building.

Cotton said she has been working with Hatala for nearly a year, but disagrees with every single one of her conclusions. She said the history of the street is now being written by the Latino community, while the department store closed in 1980. She argued that federal and local historic designation reports do not single out the building as notable.

Perez wants to see the project move forward.

“Since I was first elected Mitchell Street has been a commercial corridor I have been working on aggressively to redevelop,” said the council president. He cited progress with the new library and Gerald Ignace Health Center. He said the building Cotton wants to tear down is one of a few properties that have long stood out as in need of redevelopment. “The importance of this building on the street is subjective.”

Bauman initially raised concerns with demolition, including that other situations have resulted in vacant lots, not new buildings. He noted that Cotton still needed to secure competitively awarded tax credits. “How do we ensure it’s going to be replaced? We can’t,” he said.

Cotton said she was open to restrictions, but none were offered.

“I hope you realize we’ve heard this all before,” said Bauman after Cotton had a structural engineer testify about the condition of the structure and said the project wouldn’t start until financing was secured. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Matt Jarosz, the longest-tenured commissioner, said the commission has seen a long list of proposals that have resulted in vacant lots or seem foolish in hindsight, like the proposal to demolish what is now Colectivo on the Lake. “If we lose this building, how would we deny someone else on Mitchell Street with the same argument?” asked Jarosz.

The newest commissioner, Nicholas Hans Robinson, disagreed.

“In this instance, I would actually be in support of demolishing the building, not because I don’t revere its history, but it’s literally not appropriate to serve the community,” he said.

The second newest commissioner, Rafael Garcia, said it would be a disservice to the community not to approve Cotton’s request. Neither Garcia, nor Hans Robinson mentioned the specifics of the ordinance.

“I really think we have to stick to the legal criteria here,” said Bauman. “Whether or not the community wants something is not criteria for whether we should do something.”

The commission’s role is to follow the preservation ordinance, but the council has a wider latitude to consider economic and other factors upon appeal.

But Bauman then did something unexpected. He backed demolition as he said it was a “close call” on whether the structure was significant to the historic district.

“I am taking a vote contrary to my usual position based on the strength of the Common Council President’s recommendation,” said Bauman.

“That’s not legal. That’s political,” said chair Patti Keating Kahn. “You’re going against what we’re mandated to do.”

“I am just very concerned we send out a message that is consistent to people,” said Jarosz, noting that the process allows for the council appeal. “This is not the last stop for this proposal.”

“We are not trying to make it harder, but yes, there is another step,” said Ann Pieper Eisenbrown. “We have criteria. We need to abide by them.”

Bauman made a motion to approve Cotton’s demolition request. But only the alderman, Garcia and Hans Robinson voted in support.

Jarosz, Keating Kahn, Sally Peltz and Ann Pieper Eisenbrown voted against granting approval.

Cotton’s request was denied, but she maintains her appeal rights to the Common Council.

Changing The Rules

Perez said he would like to work with the commission on improving the process because he fears people are interpreting its preservation criteria differently.

“I think myself and other people in my neighborhood come to a different conclusion taking the same things into account,” said the alderman. “In certain neighborhoods, that same criteria is looked at completely different than my neighborhood is.”

“There are things about this commission’s actions that are not consistent and irritate me,” said Keating Kahn.”What we need to do alderman is we need to change [the rules] if we don’t like them.” She said the commission needs to be prepared to meet the needs of the present day.

Keating Kahn revealed that she was “accosted” by another developer after the commission’s actions to twice delay Juli Kaufmann‘s plan for a new house in a historic district. The unnamed individual was upset “because we were subjective and didn’t follow criteria,” said Keating Kahn, “and I agreed with them.”



2 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Historic Commission Rejects Mitchell Street Demolition”

  1. mkeumkenews09 says:

    If the Commission’s criteria lead to this structure being kept as it is, then clearly the Commission’s criteria needs to be updated to be more appropriate and to fit the needs of the community.

    How does this structure provide value to the community? What is the value for it being designated as historic and being kept, if it has little utility leading to no maintenance and further deterioration?

  2. Chris Rute says:

    A sensitively designed vertical addition could be considered that could save the building and provide the additional housing. Win/win. Cost of additional structure no different than new construction, saving the demo cost and historic tax credits could make such a project pencil!

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