Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:21 pm
Sydney Hih or Syndey Low?
By Charles Rathmann, of SBT
With a stretch of the adjacent Park East Freeway spur being torn down behind it and the Bradley Center considering expansion ahead of it, the Sydney Hih building’s days may be numbered.
Alan Eisenberg, owner of the building, contends Milwaukee Ald. Paul Henningsen has been telling constituents the Sidney Hih is scheduled for demolition.
Henningsen denies Eisenberg’s allegation.
For now, the 28,719-square-foot building, which was constructed in 1876 and redeveloped in the 1970s, continues as a magnet for artists, musicians and bohemian-types of all stripes.
Eisenberg, a Milwaukee attorney and radio talk show host whose Knapp Street Realty owns the building at 300 W. Juneau Ave., said the first floor and basement, which have housed restaurants and nightclubs in the past, are now vacant.
“Henningsen has been antagonistic to users who called his office about permits at the property,” Eisenberg said. “I had two major restaurateurs interested in leasing. When they called his office, they were told by his secretary that the building was scheduled to be demolished.”
Eisenberg and Knapp Realty broker Steve Cohen also claim potential tenants have been stonewalled by Henningsen’s office when they try to get on Utility and Licensing Committee agendas for liquor license requests.
Cohen said the firm hired a private investigator who inquired about a liquor license for a business in the Sydney Hih building. The investigator was told the building was scheduled for demolition, according to Cohen.
“It has been going on for the last couple years,” Cohen said. “Every time I recommend people to call down there to see if they can get a license, they have been told, ‘We are not issuing any liquor licenses for downtown any longer.’ But there are restaurants that open all the time and get liquor licenses.
“They have been told that the Park East project is going on and that building will be torn down. As far as a liquor license goes, people have asked if they can be put on the list to go in front of the board, and the secretary tells them that Mr. Henningsen is in charge of that, and he won’t put anyone on the agenda,” Cohen said.
At least one other alderman said he also had heard Henningsen say publicly that the building would be torn down. That alderman did not want to named in this report, but said Henningsen made the statement at a committee meeting about a year ago.
Henningsen told Small Business Times he had never told people calling his office for information that the structure was scheduled for demolition.
West Bend restaurateur Gregg DesRosier, a partner in the Cajun eatery Muddy’s on Main, called Henningsen’s office Nov. 25 to inquire about the Sydney Hih building.
“He just tried to steer me away from it,” Des Rosier said of Henningsen. “He never said it was going to be torn down. He did say it was for sale.”
Henningsen’s comments to Des Rosier also focused on the amount of money it would take to build the first floor of the building out for a restaurant, Des Rosier said.
“He immediately went into, ‘There are better places to go,'” Des Rosier said. “He said that with the redevelopment, it might not be your best option.”
Henningsen told Small Business Times he believes the Sidney Hih, in its current use, is a “cancer on the neighborhood.”
Henningsen said at least one developer had contacted him to inquire about an adaptive reuse of the Sidney Hih.
“I have been talking to a fellow who has a serious interest,” Henningsen said. “A lot of the challenges come from the fact that it is four different buildings, and rehabbing it would be very hard. I’d like to see the plans to redevelop it. It has to be a plus. It can’t be the negative it has been for so many years.
“Upstairs, we have had problems with illegal rooming houses. We had rooms that were rented for band practices, which were really illegal living quarters,” Henningsen said.
Henningsen predicted that rather than redevelop the building, Eisenberg would “sit” on the property until it affected redevelopment plans for surrounding land enough for someone to offer him the $1 million asking price.
“Right now, he wants $1 million for it, and that is absolutely absurd,” Henningsen said. “The place across the street, which used to be a Car-X, sold for $600,000, and that was twice the space. So, ostensibly, his land is worth $300,000. And the building isn’t worth a penny.”
As the Park East falls, new development is built and the Bradley Center ponders expansion, the value of the land at the Sydney Hih site will increase.
Even before the first section of the freeway spur fell, that land doubled in value, rising from an assessed value of $71,000 in 2001 to $142,000 in 2002.
Meanwhile, the assessed value of the building dropped to $580,000 from $597,000.
Does Henningsen think the building ultimately will be torn down?
“Not necessarily,” Henningsen said. “He (Eisenberg) has it for sale. I think whoever the new buyer is will make that determination. If it is completely fixed up, it is fine by the city.
“But it is probably going to be $2 million to fix up, at least. I am not sure that someone wouldn’t buy it just for the land value,” Henningsen said. “In about five or so years, the land value might catch up to his asking price. But in that time, it might fall down on its own.”
Eisenberg stressed that the building is sound, however.
“There are several developers who have looked at it to see if it could be converted into a residential condo building,” Eisenberg said. “It has been looked at and studied by a substantial number of restoration architects.”
The building was named one of Milwaukee’s “10 most endangered” buildings in 2000 by preservationists at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Architecture.
Various parts of the building are not separately served with plumbing, heating, ventilation or air conditioning, and the uneven floors that result from the union of four different buildings into a single unit would have to be eliminated.
Peter Sadowski, a graduate student in the UWM Architecture and Urban Planning Department, has been studying reuse options for the building since September. According to Sadowski, a mixed-use approach looks like the best possibility for success for the site.
“I am still going through the numbers right now. Economically, that is always a question. Socially, a mixed-use project would be considered a very good use of the property, given that the building does have significance to the downtown area,” Sadowski said.
“Residential condo use might be the highest and best use for the property, but not for the building,” Eisenberg said. “If we decide to demolish the building and build Bradley Center Condos, we’d be sold out in six months. However, this can’t happen until the freeway goes down. There is enough space to build a 500-unit condo.”
Eisenberg also said his firm had been courting Harley-Davidson Motor Co., about using the site and adjacent property to build its $30 million motorcycle museum.
“Harley (people) have indicated they want to stay in the corridor,” Eisenberg said. “But they said immediately that I only have 30,000 square feet, and they want more than 100,000 square feet. I opened the discussion with them again, stressing that the land mass for the 100,000 square feet would be immediately available when the Park East Freeway spur comes down.”
Dec. 6, 2002 Small Business Times, Milwaukee