Milwaukee’s Historic Preservation Commission on Monday voted 4-3 to deny a certificate of appropriateness to allow developer Zuwena Cotton to raze the former Grand department store building at 1101-1113 W. Historic Mitchell St. to make way for an apartment building development.
That vote could be overturned by the Common Council, however.
Cotton, who purchased the building about two years ago – initially with hopes of renovating the longtime retail building – is seeking to replace the 131-year-old building with a mixed-use 55-unit apartment building.
The 5-story building would be constructed within the 22,669-square footprint of the existing building and would be an “inventive reiteration of the original historic building,” according to a project description submitted to the Historic Preservation Commission.
Dubbed “The Encore” the development would include 18,380 square feet of commercial space on the first floor. The upper four floors would have the 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.
While the building was originally constructed in 1891, its main architectural significance is its Art Deco second story -- something that came as result of at 1937 renovation. In an effort to retain that vibe, the design of the new building would be a combination of Art Deco and modern chic, the project description states.
“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 writes in a project description.
Speaking to members of the commission on Monday, Cotton said she hadn’t purchased the building with the intention of razing it but soon learned that rehabilitating the structure would be financially unfeasible.
The report provided by the 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.”
Hatala went on to note that the value the building provides to the Historic Mitchell Street area goes beyond its architecture.
“This is an historic district, and there is a reason why we collectively put this designation on to this grouping of buildings, because they tell a story. This was a story about retail – a story about immigrants (like the Rosenburg family who started The Grand) making it in the new country, in the New World. It is about exclusive businesses that had a draw – not just from South Siders but from the city (residents at large),” she told the commission during a presentation.
But Cotton, and supporters of the project, including the area’s alderman, Common Council President Jose 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.
“I am not trying to erase what the Rosenburg’s accomplished, their history. I am trying to honor the history of the building, but also honor the dreams and desires of the Mitchell Street community. I am looking at the Perezes, the Gonzaleses, … and what story they are going to tell 100 years from now,” Cotton said. “I have come to know and love the people in that community. … I have talked to the alderman. I have talked to the BID. It is not about me coming in and executing my will, but it is executing what is needed for the community. Real estate is made to serve people and not the other way around.”
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.
Sitting next to Cotton during her presentation, Perez said a goal of his since being elected in 2010 was to work aggressively to redevelop Mitchell Street, adding that the Grand building is important not just for its Art Deco entrance but for its proximity to the local library branch, the bus line, and its location within the Historic Mitchell Street Corridor.
“The importance of the building on the street. I think that is subjective. I don’t how long we are going to have blight on that street and with all due respect to Ms. Cotton that building is blighted. She can’t get the second floor rented,” he said. “I think what Ms. Cotton has proposed exceeds what could be there in the sense of preserving the historical content, and at the same time doing some development on the street.”
In the final calculus, Historic Preservation Commission members like Matthew Jarosz cited the need for the committee to stick firm to the criteria set forth in the ordinance developed by the committee to determine whether a building should be razed, noting that ignoring those criteria would create a slippery slope that could result in an inability to preserve other buildings.
Commissioner and Alderman Robert Bauman, who ultimately ended up voting in favor of granting Cotton the COA, noted various times that developers had been granted raze orders for historic buildings, but never ended up constructing the buildings they had promised to replace them with.
Cotton noted that if she is granted a COA, she wants its to stipulate that no demolition work can occur until financing for the development has been firmly cemented.