Building owners say Milwaukee ordinance is a facade

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Building owners say Milwaukee ordinance is a facade
Revisions may be needed for city’s new law

By Charles Rathmann, of SBT

Owners of multi-story buildings in Milwaukee say a facade ordinance due to take effect in July is imposing thousands of dollars in inspection costs and should be revised.

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The ordinance was created by the Milwaukee Common Council in response to two incidents in August 2000, when chunks of building facade crashed to city sidewalks.

As it is written, the ordinance, which was approved Aug. 18, 2001, eventually would require owners of every building more than five stories in height to pay for a hands-on inspection by a structural engineer every five years.

The cost for such an inspection on an even modest five-story building can be daunting, building owners say.

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For the six-story, 100-unit Third Ward condominium building at 234 N. Broadway, inspection cost estimates range from $22,000 to $64,800, according to condominium association president and Historic Third Ward Association board member Doug Stonnman.

"We are expected to spend that money every five years," Stonnman said. "Now you are asking the owners of the property to just start dumping in the money to prove to the city you are maintaining your building. I think it’s kind of like the Napoleanic Code, where you are guilty until proven innocent. The two buildings they did have problems with — it was obvious that that those buildings needed to be repaired. The city has the rules right now to require that."

Stonnman and other building owners are critical of the fact the ordinance treats brick facades, which are less likely to fail, the same as those made of terra cotta or masonry.

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The brick office condo building at East Buffalo Street and Broadway occupied in part by Historic Third Ward Association board member Marty Katz’s Wellston Properties would be treated just like a building with flaking, crumbling stucco.

"Thank goodness that none of the properties we manage are over five stories in height," Katz said. "Most of them are residential properties on the east side. On the other hand, I find it horrifically problematic. I have a general disdain for greater government involvement in my professional life. The good guys will do what needs to be done to get their buildings in shape. The guys who don’t care … don’t care about ordinances."

Katz worries that the ordinance could have a chilling effect on market prices for multi-story buildings.

"My concerns are not only whether I would consider purchasing the building in the first place," Katz said. "I am wondering about the long-term effects for insurance coverage. If the ordinance is in force, will insurance companies be forced to recognize this and lower premiums because there is no chance of negligence? Or will they walk away from facade-oriented claims because it is the responsibility of the business owner?"

Tom Bernacchi, vice president of Towne Realty’s commercial division, doubts that the ordinance would have an adverse affect on insurance claims, because normal wear and tear, which can eventually lead to some facade failures, is not typically covered by insurance.

Only facade failures attributable to a cause such as tornados, high winds or seismic activity would be covered, according to Bernacchi.

"However, if you do have your inspection, if you have a cause, certainly this should assist you in showing the problem did not exist two weeks ago; but then you had those high winds and now the problem does exist," Bernacchi said.

Bernacchi, who said he agreed philosophically with the intent of the ordinance, said he was primarily concerned with the difficulty of having the inspections completed in the time allotted.

"In the first round, which includes buildings built prior to 1920, we are going to have at least two or three buildings, depending on how they score one of the buildings, that had a facade replacement back in the 1960s," Bernacchi said. "As far as the ability to get it done, it is going to be difficult …. There are only so many engineers, so many restoration companies that have the expertise to go up and down these buildings with the engineers. And a lot of those companies are booked with work. Building owners in Chicago have fallen into the same problem — so much to be done and not enough professionals to get it done."

Members of the state chapter of the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) and a representative of the City of Milwaukee Department of Neighborhood Services (DNS) met Jan. 13 at BOMA headquarters to hash out their differences over the ordinance, which was based on a similar rule in Chicago.

"City building inspectors can only do so much," DNS chief operations officer Tracy Williams said. "All we are asking them is take care of their properties in a more extensive way."

Williams stressed that despite claims to the contrary, the ordinance was not drafted to get the city off the hook for paying for the inspections. He said the ordinance already includes a provision to exempt buildings with recently reconstructed facades.

"I don’t think we are trying to not do inspections," Williams said. "Having a building this size, you have to take care of it. An owner can only see so much visually from the ground. Once you get above five stories, you need to be up there, hands-on …. If the entirety of a facade has been reconstructed like the (Marcus Center for the Performing Arts) just was, with all the stone replaced, and it was done under permit, we would show that, and the owner would get credit for it. But if someone just went up, checked the facade and did some tuck pointing, we don’t know about that."

According to Williams, a thorough inspection up close is crucial for terra cotta buildings.

"The biggest problem is buildings where the facade is fastened by metal ties," Williams said. "You get water behind the wall, and those metal ties can corrode. You have to look at that especially close. The next most dangerous is masonry-type construction where you have terra cotta as a decorative piece."

According to BOMA government relations director John Periard, the city is receptive to pursuing adjustments to the ordinance, which would affect between 100 and 120 buildings this year.

"The facade ordinance is based on the Chicago ordinance, but unlike in Chicago, if there is one small area of a facade that is a problem, the entire building must be reinspected the next year," Periard said. "The city has been reasonable in listening to our concerns. And the ordinance is less strict in some ways than the Chicago ordinance."

However, implementation of the Chicago ordinance was delayed for a year to allow building owners adequate time to comply. Also, provisions were added that required less frequent inspections for brick and other more durable facades than those constructed of masonry and terra cotta.

Periard is optimistic that the ordinance could be changed to account for the performance of the different facade materials, but he is less certain that building owners with regular maintenance and inspection programs could be exempted.

"If the build owner already has a maintenance plan in place, the owner should be exempted from the ordinance, the owner should be exempted from the mandated inspections," Periard said. "But I suspect the city would still like to see a structural engineer up there very five years. What we might be able to get at the outset here is a phased approach, where they have to do one side of a building per year so building managers could budget over a longer period of time. They would start with the side with the most exposure to pedestrian walkways."

Jan. 24, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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