Marriott hotel proposal faces historic preservation battle

The developers of a proposed 200-room, 10-story Marriott hotel in downtown Milwaukee will try to make the case that they should be able to demolish five buildings that are more than 100 years old and are in a historic district because those buildings are mostly vacant, have been dramatically altered and the $50 million hotel project would bring jobs and increased tax base to the city.
Jackson Street Management LLC, which includes Ed Carow and Mark Flaherty of Milwaukee-based hotel development firm Wave Development LLC, wants to build the full service Marriott hotel. It would wrap around the Johnson Bank building located southwest of Wisconsin Avenue and Milwaukee Street. The hotel would have a restaurant along Wisconsin Avenue and several other amenities, including meeting space.
The developers are in the process of lining up financing for the $50 million project, said spokesman Evan Zeppos. The project will be financed by foreign investors through the federal government’s EB-5 program in partnership with Milwaukee-based RCI FirstPathway Partners, Zeppos said. The EB-5 program provides green cards and possible citizenship for foreigners that make investments that create jobs in the United States.
The project would create a major boost for downtown Milwaukee, providing more hotel rooms to help attract conventions and will create 200 permanent jobs and 450 construction jobs, Zeppos said. The building would generate about $2.2 million in additional tax revenue annually, he said.
“This is just what the doctor ordered for downtown,” Zeppos said. “It’s a major shot in the arm.”
However, the project could be controversial because five buildings that are more than 100 years old would be demolished to make way for the hotel. Ald. Robert Bauman, who represents the downtown area, said he strongly objects to demolition of the historic buildings. The developers should find another, preferably vacant, site downtown for the building, he said.
“I welcome that (project) on any number of vacant surface parking lots in downtown Milwaukee,” Bauman said.
The Marriott hotel development will not work at another location, Zeppos said. The site’s location along downtown Milwaukee’s main street (Wisconsin Avenue) is important. Also the site’s location on the east side of the river in the heart of the central business district and within a short walk to the Frontier Airlines Center and downtown attractions is crucial to the development’s success, he said.
“To move it off of Wisconsin Avenue is to say, ‘Marriott, go somewhere else,'” Zeppos said. “Marriott wants to be on the east end of Wisconsin Avenue. They love this location.”
“I think that’s just B.S.,” Bauman said. “The only reason they’re pushing this deal is that’s the deal they have.”
The project will be reviewed by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, which Bauman is a member of. However, the Common Council could override the commission’s recommendation. The developers have hired a lobbyist to make the case to aldermen about the project and Zeppos was hired to pitch the project in the media.
If the demolition of the buildings is rejected by the Historic Preservation Commission it would take a two-thirds vote by the Common Council to overturn that ruling, according to a staff person in the Historic Preservation Commission office.
The buildings on the site are old, but lack historic significance, Zeppos said.
“Being old is different than being truly historic,” he said. “The facts regarding the true significance of the buildings need to be weighed.”
The buildings on the block have been altered dramatically over the years and no longer have any historical or architectural significance and could not be restored to their original appearance said Michael Levine, owner of Next Generation Real Estate. One of the buildings on the proposed hotel site, at 317-327 E. Wisconsin Ave., is owned by Next Generation, which has worked on an office building development on the block, but has not been able to attract an anchor tenant. Bauman also opposed the office building project. Next Generation plans to sell that building to Jackson Street Management and is redesigning its proposed office building.
“You could never, ever get it to what it was,” Levine said of the 317-27 E. Wisconsin Ave. building. “It will never be what was built in the 1860s.”
But Bauman says the Milwaukee Street block north of Wisconsin Avenue proves the developers wrong. Similar historic buildings there were restored.
“They turned a drab block into one of the most exciting retail and restaurant districts in the city, and the historic buildings were the secret to that success,” he said.
In addition, demolition of the historic buildings on the block southwest of Wisconsin Avenue and Milwaukee Street would contradict the city’s downtown master plan, Bauman said.
Downtown Milwaukee already has a Courtyard by Marriott hotel and a Residence Inn by Marriott hotel, but does not have a full-service Marriott. The only full-service Marriott hotels located in southeastern Wisconsin are in Pewaukee and Racine.
At 200 rooms the proposed downtown Marriott hotel would be slightly smaller than the 221-room InterContinental Hotel downtown.
The project provides a tremendous development opportunity at a time that the downtown is struggling and needs a boost, Zeppos said. He described the Marriott hotel as “four-star” and “world class.”
“Downtown is ailing,” Zeppos said. “How many construction cranes do you see up right now? The (Shops of Grand Avenue) is dying. The Wisconsin Center District needs more rooms to attract conventions. This is a major shot in the arm for downtown.”
The existing buildings on the proposed Marriott site have been mostly vacant for years. One of the few tenants is the Downtown Books store.
“There’s probably a higher, better use for the property,” Zeppos said. “Would you rather have boarded up buildings and an old book store or world class design?”
The architect for the project is Milwaukee-based Kahler Slater Inc.
If the project is approved construction could begin as early as late spring, Zeppos said.

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