Jeramey Jannene
Friday Photos

Construction Underway On Greenest Library in Milwaukee

New Martin Luther King Library will be a community hub, and provide housing for 93 households.

By - May 19th, 2023 07:14 pm
Martin Luther King Library groundbreaking. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Martin Luther King Library groundbreaking -Deshea Agee, David Weiss, Mark Sain, Lafayette Crump, Cavalier Johnson, Milele A. Coggs, Joan Johnson, Michael Emem, Elmer Moore and Frank Cumberbatch. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee is not only getting a modern library as part of the $38.8 million redevelopment project on N. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr., but it’s also getting a very environmentally friendly library and a substantial amount of new housing.

“The greenest library in Milwaukee” is how Milwaukee Public Library (MPL) director Joan Johnson described it at a groundbreaking ceremony Friday afternoon. The structure will include solar panels and geothermal heating and cooling as well as stormwater management features.

The new library will replace the Martin Luther King Library branch, 310 W. Locust St., which opened in 1971 and was given a “modest” renovation in 1997. “Now it’s time for a 21st century library for this community,” said Johnson. Final design work for the interior is still ongoing, but plans call for the traditional stacks of books as well as a movable wall to create a large meeting room, small rooms for things like online job applications and interviews and a host of amenities to make the space a community hub. A makerspace geared at teenagers could be included.

The city is replicating its lauded public-private partnership model to build the replacement. A partnership of Emem Group and General Capital Group will develop a 93-unit affordable apartment complex that includes a 17,000-square-foot library on the first floor. Since 2011, MPL has used the model to develop the Villard Square, East, Mitchell and Good Hope libraries. The new libraries replace one-story structures with aging mechanical systems, less flexible meeting space and that require more staffing.

The replacement has been a long-time coming. City officials started seeking redevelopment proposals seven years ago, with an initial development failing to secure the low-income housing tax credits necessary to advance the proposal. The new development team entered the picture in 2020 and fought through COVID-19 funding challenges to get the project to a groundbreaking. On Friday, officials said it was worth the wait.

“I think all of us owe a debt of gratitude to Alderwoman Coggs for her persistence to get something done,” said Mayor Cavalier Johnson.

“I would much rather have a project that takes much longer to get done but means so much more to the community than something that was just quickly done,” said area alderwoman and library board member Milele A. Coggs. “The library and development that you see here a year from now will be a tremendous addition to the best King Drive in the nation.”

The project runs along the west side of N. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. between W. Locust St. and W. Chambers St. The new library will be located in the base of a four-story, 42-unit apartment building at W. Locust St. and N. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. The mid-block Garfield Theatre building, 2933-2957 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr., will be redeveloped. The two-story commercial building and lobby structure that faces the street will be redeveloped as eight live-work, two-story apartments while the theater structure, located along the alley at the rear of the site, will be demolished and used for surface parking. A four-story, 43-unit apartment building will be constructed at the north end of the block.

“There were some times of uncertainty if this project was going to move forward or not,” said developer Michael Emem. At several points, it appeared the development team had the funding it needed, only for macroeconomic factors to drive the costs up again.

The development team secured competitively-awarded low-income housing tax credits in 2021. The credits, the development’s primary funding source, are sold to institutional investors in exchange for the developers setting aside at least 80% of the units at below-market rates for a period of 30 years. Nineteen of the units will be set aside for individuals in need of supportive housing. Eleven are to be targeted at military veterans. The credits are designed, by federal standards, to ensure rental rates do not exceed 30% of a household’s income.

But once the credits were in hand, the project was one of many that saw its costs rise as materials like lumber spiked in cost. The city and community partners sought several pathways to fill the financing gap. “These deals do not happen overnight, nor do they happen in a vacuum,” said Emem.

The city is contributing $915,000, plus 6.15% interest, over 20 years from increased property tax revenue generated by the development. The agreement, structured as a developer-financed tax incremental financing (TIF) district, requires the development team in exchange to first offer 20% of the apartments to existing area residents as part of the Anti-Displacement Neighborhood Preference Policy. The Common Council approved the agreement in February.

According to the January 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 American Rescue Plan Act (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. Emem said on Friday that the development team secured additional grants, including a new federal solar power grant, to close a financing gap that emerged as interest rates and construction costs rose since the February approval. The deal closed April 14.

The city sold the existing library and two properties at the north end of the block for $1 each to form the majority of the development site. Demolition of the city-owned building, a two-story structure at 2977-2979 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr., at the north end of the block, is already effectively complete. All that remains is the foundation and a pile of bricks. The long-vacant building was built in 1904 as a tavern according to city assessment records. The existing library closed on May 6 and demolition work is already underway.

Emem and General Capital purchased the theater from the long-time owner and user Philadelphia Church of God in Christ.  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 Emem during the approval process. He said restoration costs would be in the millions and a new use would still need to be found. The library board rejected an earlier developer’s plan to use the theater room as the library because of cost concerns. Emem said all seating has been removed, water damage from a roof leak is evident and the acoustical plaster is in disrepair. It hasn’t been used as a movie theater for at least three decades.

JLA Architects is serving as the design firm on the development. Moody Nolan will design the library’s interior. Northcentral Construction is serving as the general contractor.

MPL has a history of adding green infrastructure to its facilities. The Central Library drew federal acclaim in 2013 for its environment-focused improvements. Other existing libraries have been renovated to include environmentally-friendly features.

A temporary library, 2767 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr., will open on May 22. It will offer popular materials, hold pick-ups, laptops and wireless internet access.

Garfield Theatre and Construction Site

Ground Breaking Ceremony

Library’s Last Day


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