Jeramey Jannene

Over Objections and a Death Wish, Committee Endorses New Historic District

Full council will render its decision on April 9.

By - Apr 4th, 2024 03:24 pm
3100 block of W. Wisconsin Ave. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

3100 block of W. Wisconsin Ave. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Five houses on W. Wisconsin Avenue near N. 31st Street would form a historic district under a proposal unanimously endorsed Thursday by the Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee.

But the unanimous vote doesn’t mean unanimous support. It’s an issue that has been hotly contested since January.

The owners of one of the properties have attacked Alderman Robert Bauman with profanity and a written death wish. At least two of the other property owners have concerns about the preservation process’s requirements. Several area residents, many of whom live in historically protected homes, support the new designation. At least one alderman has concerns with the city’s historic preservation ordinance.

“These are really the last cluster of properties from the Grand Avenue period of history in Wisconsin,” said Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) planner Andrew Stern in summarizing an extensive report documenting the homes’ history. They were built, said Stern, by prominent architects for prominent families in the late 1890s and early 1900s on a street that was once known for grand estates. Most of them are now used as office buildings.

But the majority of the owners of the properties don’t want to see them protected, or at least want more information. Chief among the opponents are real estate investors Eric Sobush and Mark Roeker, who live in one of the houses in addition to running their firm, Second Time Around Realty, from it.

At a March 11 hearing, where the historic commission recommended preservation, Sobush called Bauman, a commissioner and area alderman, a “mother f**ker.” Later that night, Roeker emailed Bauman: “Hope you get untreatable cancer.”

The two gave a more mild repudiation of the proposal Thursday after Bauman began two-hour hearing by playing a recording of the March meeting and referencing the email.

“I think the HPC does most of its good work through apathy and ignorance,” said Sobush. He said the city and commissioners had failed to communicate with him. “If we gained information we might know how to stop this process…. we are 100% opposed and no one cares.”

Sobush said the designation would depress their property value, an assertion disputed by Bauman and other preservation advocates.

The two, who said they have restored more than 200 homes in the city, are moving their home and business out of the neighborhood.

“We are moving our office. We are moving to New Berlin because of this,” said Sobush. According to assessment records, they purchased the home for $148,400 in 2014. It’s now listed for $419,000.

Roeker said they have raised $25 million from 85 investors to renovate homes. Bauman said investment groups have become a problem in city real estate.

“We’re the problem that city houses are getting renovated?” asked Roeker. He said they still own 65 of the homes. “We haven’t recently sold to any out-of-state people.”

Alderwoman JoCasta Zamarripa said Sobush’s conduct, which she said included attacking messages on social media posts, made it tough to support him. Sobush apologized.

Concerns From Others

The owners of the homes on each side of the Sobush-Roeker property, 3121 W. Wisconsin Ave., also have concerns.

“We just want to appeal to you to hopefully recognize this is not the Grand Avenue of old,” said Matt Morrissey, who acquired the home at 3127 W. Wisconsin Ave. in December with his wife Tricia. “We are afraid of some of the challenges that will be caused if this goes through.”

“Thank you for being reasonable in your testimony,” said Bauman, who chaired the zoning meeting in the absence of outgoing alderman Michael Murphy.

The couple detailed concerns with the timing and minimum expenditures to access tax credits. Bauman and others suggested they move into the home to lower the limits and make more programs available. But Tricia said she felt Bauman was talking down to them and others.

She said their goal is to move her business, Milwaukee Community Midwives, into the building as an anchor tenant. But the Morrisseys said renovation costs could make that prohibitive, especially given that an adjacent building, that isn’t part of the district, is so close to their structure.

“It seems this process has gotten a little off the rails,” said Ald. Jonathan Brostoff. “We want to see it be successful… We want you to succeed.” Along with Ald. Russell W. Stamper, II, he pledged to connect the couple with resources and information.

Brandon Anderegg, whose family owns the home at 3111 W. Wisconsin Ave. for their law practice, said the HPC staffers had misrepresented that they met with the family at an earlier meeting. Stern and coworker Tim Askin said it was an unintentional mistake attributed to Stern’s going on family leave. They pledged to meet with the family in the next week. “We would be happy to,” said Askin.

Milwaukee Preservation Alliance Executive Director Emma Rudd said her organization would also work to connect individuals and investors with resources. “I wanted to make it clear that preservation is not the enemy,” she said. She said the practice would add value and respond to modern needs. “We are not asking people to heat their homes with coal or whale oil.”

Ald. Mark Chambers, Jr., who doesn’t sit on the committee, expressed frustration with how the process was playing out. He said the HPC staff dropped the ball.

He said he didn’t like that James Dieter, who lives approximately eight blocks away in a historic mansion, was able to nominate the homes without living in them. But Bauman said that was an issue with the longstanding ordinance, not this specific case.

“From everything I have seen and heard, our staff did a great job. There was one miscommunication,” said Brostoff.

“A dropped ball is a dropped ball,” said Chambers.

Zamarripa said the city should pursue something suggested by designation supporter Corinne Rosen: public meetings on preservation practices and the impacts of a designation.

She moved to approve the designation and no committee member objected. The full council will consider the proposal on April 9.

The district also includes two homes on the north side of the street, the Brumder Mansion at 3046 W. Wisconsin Ave. and the bungalow at 3034 W. Wisconsin Ave. The owners of both properties, Tom Carr and Julie Carr, have not appeared at any of the meetings, nor have they submitted a written objection.


Berrada Property Protected

The committee also endorsed a nearby property for individual designation. In many ways, it is the building that started the whole debate.

The Millerand Apartments, 3035 W. Wisconsin Ave., would be protected as a historic site.

Representatives of Berrada Properties, which acquired the property last year, have not objected to protecting the building, nor its architectural merit, but they have questioned designating the entire property.

“We are here for a narrow purpose,” said attorney Richard Donner. He said they wanted the designation changed to include just the structure, not the surrounding site. He cited a 2008 city attorney’s office opinion as guidance for the narrower designation.

Assistant city attorney Alexander Carson said he was only asked to attend one day ago and wasn’t aware of the earlier opinion. But Donner, as Urban Milwaukee reported, has raised the same issue for multiple months now. “So what good is your appearance if you don’t have an answer for me?” asked Bauman of Carson.

Central to the issue is Berrada’s frequent practice of simplifying landscaping in favor of large boulders. Berrada, Milwaukee’s largest and often its most polarizing landlord, has purchased several properties on the Near West Side in recent years.

Area resident Anne Devitt supports designating the whole site. “You can’t separate these two things from each other,” she said.

“If there are issues with landscaping that doesn’t make it historic,” said Donner.

But the committee moved to pass the measure as the whole site, pending confirmation by the City Attorney.

Berrada’s chief legal counsel, Joe Goldberger, attempted to intercede.

“I am going to shut you off now,” said Bauman, noting that Donner and Goldberger had already been given time to speak.

“No, you are not going to shut me off now,” said Goldberger. “There is a double standard with the way supporters are treated and the way Mr. Berrada is treated.”

But Bauman succeeded in ending the hearing. “We will take this up privately,” said Goldberger.

The council will next take up both designations publicly on April 9, but, as is standard practice, with no public comment.

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