Office building proposal could face historic preservation battle

A $35 million office building proposal at Wisconsin Avenue and Broadway in downtown Milwaukee is opposed by a downtown alderman, and the project could get caught in a historic preservation battle.

Milwaukee attorney Robert Levine, his son Michael Levine and a group of investors are working on plans to build a six-story office building on the block southeast of Wisconsin Avenue and Broadway in downtown Milwaukee. Michael Levine is also an attorney and is the owner of Next Generation Real Estate Inc., which is the developer for the project.

The current plans for the development include 130,000 square feet of office space, 17,000 square feet of first floor retail space and 270 structured parking spaces.
To make way for the new building, four historic buildings on the block would have to be demolished. Those buildings are:
  • A four-story, 14,400-square-foot, 110-year-old building at 626-28 N. Broadway.
  • A four-story, 30,000-square-foot, 121-year-old building at 618-24 N. Broadway.
  • A three-story, 51,914-square-foot, 119-year-old building at 301-15 E. Wisconsin Ave.
  • A four-story, 13,846-square-foot, 110-year-old building at 327 E. Wisconsin Ave.

Alderman Robert Bauman, who represents the downtown area, says he opposes the demolition of the historic buildings and therefore opposes the Levine’s office building proposal.

“I am absolutely opposed to it,” said Bauman, who has met with the developers. “They are absolutely clear-cutting some of the most historically significant properties in the city of Milwaukee. They are going to have strong opposition from this office.”
But the buildings are in poor condition, have been altered significantly from their original appearance and are mostly vacant, Michael Levine said.
“Their lifecycle has come to an end, unfortunately,” he said. “They’re old. There’s old and there’s antique. These buildings are just old. Other than the fact these buildings are old, they are not architecturally significant in any way.”
The buildings lack the historical significance of the nearby Mitchell and Mackie buildings and are not worth saving, Robert Levine said.
“I’m a believer in historic buildings, if they have significance,” he said.
Older buildings are less efficient and less attractive to tenants, Michael Levine said.
“It’s not like we haven’t tried to lease these buildings,” he said. “(But) they have very inefficient floor plates, inefficient column grades, and inefficient mechanical systems. To preserve old, inefficient buildings, it’s not cost effective to do so.”
Bauman, a member of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and the Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee, disagrees with the Levines’ assessment of the buildings.
“Actually, they’re not in that bad of shape,” Bauman said.
Other members of the Historic Preservation Commission could not be reached for comment or declined to comment about the project.
“It feels inappropriate to comment on something on which I have limited information and more importantly, that will most likely come before (the Historic Preservation Commission),” said commission member Ann Pieper Eisenbrown, owner of Pieper Properties Inc.
Although the old buildings are blighted now they could be restored and revitalized, just as many of the old buildings on Milwaukee Street were, one block away, Bauman said. Milwaukee Street is now one of the downtown area’s hottest nightclub and restaurant districts.
“A lot of people tell me that is the coolest part of Milwaukee,” Bauman said.
Another option is to keep the historic facades of the building and build a new office building behind them.
That would be a “huge challenge,” Michael Levine said.
But it has been done successfully in other cities, including Chicago, Bauman said.
“This is not some radical idea,” he said.
The developers plan to seek a yet to be determined amount of tax incremental financing (TIF) for the project, Michael Levine said.
TIF should not be provided for a project that destroys historic buildings and replaces it with a low-rise new office building, Bauman said.
“We’re not going to tear down four-story, 1800s buildings to put up a new 6-story office building,” he said. “I don’t think the city would under any condition offer a TIF for a six-story building on Wisconsin Avenue.”
If the developers are willing to preserve the facades, Bauman said, “I will at least look at it.”
Bauman is only one member of the Common Council, but since the project would be in his district his opinion will carry extra weight with the other aldermen.
But real estate development has slowed to a trickle in the wake of the Great Recession and other aldermen may be eager to embrace a $35 million investment in downtown. The developers appeal could be even more attractive if they are able to convince office tenants to move to their project from outside of the city.
The developers will need to secure an anchor office tenant to get financing for the project. Several potential anchor tenants are in the market for office space and could anchor a new downtown building including: Von Briesen & Roper S.C. (seeking about 75,000 square feet), Godfrey & Kahn S.C. (seeking about 90,000 square feet), Baker Tilly and CH2M HILL. However, all of those tenants are currently in the city of Milwaukee.
The Levines declined to say which potential tenants they are talking to, but said they are talking to tenants interested in their project.
“We’re in talks with several of the names that are out there,” said Michael Levine. “I think if we land any one of those tenants we’re good to go.”
A new building would provide a needed shot in the arm to Wisconsin Avenue, the Levines say.
Wisconsin Avenue has had numerous retail space vacancies for years and the problem has only gotten worse from the Great Recession.
A new building would have a better chance to attract retail tenants the Levines said, and would be a catalyst to revitalize the area.
“That area needs something,” Robert Levine said. “There has to be a shot in the arm over there. East Wisconsin Avenue is a disaster. There are so many vacancies. It’s a block that needs work.”
A new building on the block could also help enhance Broadway as a gateway from downtown into the Third Ward, Robert and Michael Levine said.
“All we’re trying to do is improve Milwaukee,” Michael Levine said.

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Andrew is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, he is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, their son, Zach, and their dog, Hokey. He is an avid sports fan and is a member of the Muskego Athletic Association board of directors.

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