A development proposal that would include the razing of the former Grand Department building at 1101-1113 W. Historic Mitchell St. in Milwaukee to make way for an apartment building development was granted approval by the Common Council on Tuesday morning, but not without a qualifier.
As aldermen were considering the request for the project's certificate of appropriateness that would allow the 131-year-old building to be demolished, Alderman Bob Bauman made a motion that any demolition permit for the structure not be granted until proof has been provided that adequate financing is in place for the construction of the new building to proceed.
“I have discussed with the alderman of the district (Council President José Pérez), and I believe we are in concurrence,” Bauman said.
No objections were raised to the amendment.
Tuesday’s Common Council vote on the project comes a week after the council’s Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee voted unanimously to overturn the Historic Preservation Commission’s 4-3 decision to deny developer Zuwena Cotton the certificate of appropriateness (COA) she needs to raze the building.
At that December HPC meeting
Cotton, who purchased the building about two years ago, told commissioners that she had initially hoped to renovate the longtime retail building but found that the cost to do so would be prohibitive, especially since the main Art Deco feature of the building – added in 1937 as part of a redesign – was on the second floor of the structure.
To help honor that design element, the new the five-story building would incorporate a combination of Art Deco and modern styles.
Dubbed “The Encore” the development is slated to include 18,380 square feet of commercial space on the first floor, with the upper four floors being reserved for apartments. Ninety percent of the apartments – a mix of studio, one-, two-and-three-bedroom units – would be affordable housing available at below market rate rents to qualified tenants (based on household income level), and 10% of the units would be rented at market rates. Parking would be located on the lot at 1718 S. 12th St.
“By erecting the new development, we will bring an ‘encore’ to the once thriving commercial district that was known as the ‘second downtown’ of Milwaukee. The Encore will symbolize not what we had, but the possibilities of what we can become,” Cotton said.
In a report provided to the HPC, Carlen Hatala, a city historic preservation planner, noted however, that while the building was not suited to Cotton’s plans, it could be rehabilitated by someone interested in working with the existing structure: “There has been no indication of structural failure in the building or reason that it could not be re-used. That it does not fit the scale desired by the applicant is not a reason to consider the building a threat to health and safety.”
But Cotton, and supporters of the project, including Perez and more than 65 area residents, said the value of the building, which has been mostly vacant for years, can’t only be looked at through the lens of its past.
The building was acquired by Wisconsin Bank and Trust in 2019 as part of a sheriff’s sale in March 2019 for $630,000, according to state property records. It was purchased by Cotton in September 2020 for $350,000.
Cotton herself noted that she was able to acquire the structure from the bank for a relatively low sum, because several other developers had toured the structure and determined they could not make an adaptive reuse project work.
Cotton said she arrived with this new concept for the building, which would include a 3,330-square-foot dance studio with rentable space and a co-working space that would flow into a 2,350-square-foot “opportunity center” for local residents, after speaking with local residents and Perez and decided on a project that would deliver the kind of density needed along the corridor.
Before the HPC’s vote Cotton noted that if she was granted a COA, she would want it to stipulate that no demolition work can occur until financing for the development has been firmly cemented.
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