Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

City Approves Funding For $37.2 Million Library Redevelopment

New MLK Library designed as community hub.

By - Feb 9th, 2023 04:10 pm
Preliminary rendering of Martin Luther King Library and Garfield Theatre redevelopment. Rendering by JLA Architects.

Preliminary rendering of Martin Luther King Library and Garfield Theatre redevelopment. Rendering by JLA Architects.

The Milwaukee Common Council has done its part to build a long-sought replacement for the Milwaukee Public Library‘s Martin Luther King Library branch.

On Tuesday, the council unanimously approved the creation of a tax incremental financing (TIF) district and an associated land sale agreement to enable the long-sought, $37.2 million development. Construction, according to a financing agreement, is to begin by April 1.

The new library will be built at the corner of N. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. and W. Locust St. and continue the city’s successful model of replacing stand-alone libraries with new facilities located on the first floor of larger, tax-paying buildings.

Under the final plan, the new library will occupy approximately 17,000 square feet at the base of a four-story apartment building developed by Emem Group and General Capital Group. The 93-apartment proposal also includes the partial demolition and redevelopment of the Garfield Theatre to the north and the construction of a second new apartment building at the northern end of the block.

“The alderwoman made it really clear she wanted to look at the redevelopment of the whole block,” said General Capital partner Sig Strautmanis of Milele A. Coggs during the Jan. 31 meeting of the Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee.

“There is no way we could have gotten to this point without a collaborative approach,” said Coggs. “This has taken the longest, but sometimes good things take time.”

“Putting together packages of this $37.5 million in financing is not an easy task,” said committee chair Alderman Michael Murphy.

The current library, 310 W. Locust St., opened in 1971 and is part of a generation of one-story libraries whose mechanical systems are failing and whose designs can’t accommodate the varied uses of modern libraries. It will be demolished, with the new four-story building rising on the site.

“Of course, we will still have books and all of the traditional ways people use the libraries,” said MPL project manager Sam McGovern-Rowen. “But these are 21st-century libraries that meet the needs of patrons in every way.”

Similar to other new libraries, that includes a community room with movable walls. “They are designed to be used as open library floor space when there is not a meeting taking place,” said McGovern-Rowen. “Flexibility is really the key to our newer branches.”

A series of smaller rooms for individuals to do things like online job applications and interviews are also planned said McGovern-Rowen. A makerspace, similar to what is available at the new Good Hope and Mitchell libraries, is planned as one of several youth-focused programming efforts.

The city hired Moody Nolan to design the library’s interior, which it will own as a condominium. JLA Architects is designing the rest of the complex.

MPL initially put the project out for bid in 2016, selecting developer Lavelle Young in December of that year. But Young, working with a number of different partners, could never secure financing. General Capital Group and then Michael Emem‘s quickly-growing Emem Group were brought on in 2019 and 2020 to replace Young. The new partners secured low-income housing tax credits in spring 2021 to finance much of the project in exchange for setting apartments aside at below-market rates for households making between 30% and 80% of the area’s median income.

“Twenty percent of the units have to be prioritized for people that already live in the neighborhood,” said Department of City Development affordable housing specialist Maria Prioletta. The requirement is governed by the city’s Anti-Displacement Neighborhood Preference Policy and is in effect because the project is to receive $915,000, plus 6.15% interest, from a developer-financed TIF district. The structure is effectively a property tax rebate wherein the city returns a capped amount of the incremental property tax revenue generated by the development over no more than 20 years.

Prioletta said the rent structure for the apartments would accommodate individuals making between $10 to $20 per hour.

Nineteen of the units will be set aside for individuals in need of supportive housing. Eleven are to be targeted at military veterans.

The city would sell the library property and two others at the north end of the block for $1 each. A certified survey map to combine all of the public and private parcels was approved by the Common Council in January. The design was previously approved.

The Garfield Theatre building, 2933-2957 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr., would be redeveloped. The two-story commercial building and lobby structure that faces the street would be redeveloped while the theater structure, located along the alley at the rear of the site, would be demolished and used for surface parking.

The remaining building would become eight live-work, two-story apartments. Tenants could have street-fronting retail space, while maintaining a private entrance in the back.

“We are really restoring the true gem of the Garfield Theatre, the portion that is architecturally significant,” said Emem in September 2021 to the Bronzeville Advisory Committee. The exterior facade, including the marquee, would see new life. The 1,800-seat theater opened in 1927 just a few months after the similarly-designed Oriental Theatre. The auditorium space itself is in “rough shape,” said the developer. He said restoration costs would be in the millions and a new use would still need to be found. All of the seating has been removed, water damage from a roof leak is evident and the acoustical plaster is in disrepair. Emem said the theater hasn’t been used for films for more than three decades (Cinema Treasures puts the date at 1965), but the Greater Philadelphia Church of God in Christ uses the space for church services.

The northern apartment building would have 43 apartments. The southern building would have 42 apartments (an increase of one over reports due to a reduction in the number of live-work units). A 2021 plan calls for a mix of one-bedroom (38), two-bedroom (22) and three-bedroom (33) layouts.

A temporary library, funded in the 2023 budget after substantial debate, is to be opened while the new facility is built. A raze permit is pending to demolish the current structure.

Even after the tax credits were awarded, inflation has delayed the project given the capped housing tax credits. The State of Wisconsin stepped in to award $3 million from its American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) grant. Other projects with similar funding issues also received funding allocations.

According to the TIF district documentation, the project’s financing package relies on $18.1 million in housing tax credits, $6.4 million in mortgage financing, $5.5 million from the library, $3 million from the state’s ARPA grant, $1.5 million from the city’s ARPA-backed Housing Trust Fund, $915,000 in TIF support, a $775,000 grant from Bader Philanthropies, $691,300 from a deferred developer fee and approximately $270,000 in other grants and loans.

The size of the TIF contribution was reduced by $25,000 since it was first introduced in November, while the deferred developer fee has grown by the same amount. The interest rate was also reduced from 6.65% to 6.15%.

The City Plan Commission recommended approval of its land sale in January.

A Classic Stamper-ism

Alderman Russell W. Stamper, II, a passionate legislator who sometimes shoots first and aims second, had a question for McGovern-Rowen after praising the plan.

“Can all of the young people, 16, 17 and under, get a free library card?” he asked.

“All library cards are free,” said the library representative.

“So you can take out a book and not have to pay?” said Stamper.

Yes, said McGovern-Rowen.

“Sorry about that,” said the alderman to laughter from all, including himself.

Library cards are free for all Milwaukee residents, as is checking out any of the millions of items in the collection. DVDs, books, magazines, in-person program, children’s events, online databases, downloadable MP3s, audio books and much more are available. If it’s a physical item in the possession of any Milwaukee County library, the federated system will transport it to the library nearest to you for pickup. It’s all free.


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