Milwaukee Alderman Robert Bauman, who represents the downtown area, sharply criticized Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett for issuing a statement last week urging the Historic Preservation Commission to “complete its work” in reviewing the proposed 200-room Marriott hotel, which would be built southwest of Wisconsin Avenue and Milwaukee Street in downtown Milwaukee.
“The mayor has no backbone and no vision,” Bauman said. “This has become well documented. Tom Barrett is becoming a source of frustration. He has absolutely no urban vision.”
The Marriott project is controversial because the developers, Ed Carow and Mark Flaherty of Milwaukee-based Wave Development LLC, want to tear down five buildings that are more than 100 years old and are located in a historic district.
Historic preservation advocates, including Bauman, believe preserving the buildings should be the highest priority. But supporters of the Marriott project, including Barrett, say the hotel development would provide a needed economic boost and the buildings that would be demolished are in bad condition and lack historic and architectural significance because they have been dramatically altered over years.
"Mayor Barrett believes that when buildings have true historic significance and it’s practicable and affordable to redevelop those buildings, historic preservation strategies should be pursued," said Patrick Curley, Barrett’s chief of staff. "This is not the case with all the buildings involved with the proposed Marriott. The mayor strongly believes a development project that will enhance downtown, grow the tax base and generate jobs is far better for Milwaukee than empty buildings that house no jobs. Frankly, we’re puzzled what Alderman Bauman is defending."
The Historic Preservation Commission, which includes Bauman, in December voted to allow demolition of the five buildings, but only if the facades of the buildings are preserved. The architect for the project, Kahler Slater principal Doug Nysse, is working on redesigning the project to preserve the facades.
Evan Zeppos, a spokesman for the developers, said Nysse has come up with two plans for completely restoring the facades on Wisconsin Avenue, but is struggling to come up with a plan for the Milwaukee Street facades because the buildings are in such bad condition.
“We’ve come up with two really good options, I think, on Wisconsin Avenue,” Zeppos said. “We’re still working hard on Milwaukee Street. We are really struggling with the whole Milwaukee Street part of it because of the structural integrity of what we have there. Milwaukee Street is just going to be really, really hard. It really is a bigger structural problem than most people realize.”
The commission will meet on Monday, Jan. 10, to discuss the Marriott project and Barrett is urging commission members to move it forward.
“I encourage the Historic Preservation Commission to complete its work on the proposed Marriott hotel on East Wisconsin Avenue at its next meeting on January 10th,” Barrett said. “This investment in Milwaukee’s downtown could benefit the entire city by adding jobs and increasing the tax base. The project’s developers continue to modify the building’s design in order to address concerns raised at prior meetings of the Historic Preservation Commission. I hope everyone involved works expeditiously to move this project forward.”
If the Historic Preservation Commission opposes the project, it would need the support of a super majority of the Common Council to be approved. Supporters of the project are urging the commission to take a final vote on the project so it can be considered by the Common Council, instead of being hung up and delayed by a drawn out Historic Preservation Commission review.
“I think the mayor has shown aggressive leadership here,” Zeppos said. “The fact that he has decided to fight for this project is important.”
Bauman said it is important that the Historic Preservation Commission do everything it can to preserve the historic buildings in the city, despite pressure from the mayor’s office to quickly approve the project.
“We all want to see downtown development, we all want to see jobs created and tax base expanded,” Bauman said. “The question is if we are going to capitulate to whatever anyone wants to do or if we are going to stick to our (historic preservation) plans. There will be more economic development if you renovate the historic buildings, as evidenced by other parts of the city such as the Third Ward. Historic preservation is economic development. The fact that the mayor doesn’t understand that is very sad. This is a city with a lot of historic assets that, ask any visitor, provides added value. Milwaukee has a lot of different historic buildings of a variety of architectural styles. People think that is interesting and they find that valuable. It creates the unique image of Milwaukee, which is valuable.”
But Zeppos said the buildings have been altered so dramatically over the years that they no longer have architectural or historical significance.
The developers are not seeking any subsidy from the city for the $50 million project.