Laid out in 1857 from land subdivided by Scottish railroad magnate Alexander Mitchell, the nine blocks that make up Historic Mitchell Street on Milwaukee’s south side were for decades home to Polish immigrants who made the area a center of daily life. A hive of commercial activity for Poles and other immigrants, the street had everything from shoe repair shops and clothiers to grocers, candymakers and butchers. Later, larger department stores came to the bustling business district, once dubbed “Polish Grand Avenue.”
Today, almost none of those original businesses remain. But their buildings do.
When businesswoman Zuwena Cotton first discovered the former Grand Department Store at 1101-1113 W. Historic Mitchell St. in 2020, the two-story, 70,000-square-foot building had been foreclosed upon twice and had only one tenant, a beauty supply store occupying 12,000 square feet.
Purchasing the building from Wisconsin Bank & Trust for $350,000, Cotton began talking with architects about redeveloping the 131-year-old structure into a mixed-used development, but soon learned that structural issues – and persistent flooding that damaged the basement and elevator – would make any adaptive reuse project, especially one including apartments, financially unfeasible.
Working for the better part of a year with planners at the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and architect Barry C. Yang, Cotton proposed replacing the former department store with a five-story, 55-unit apartment building with first-floor commercial space. Dubbed “The Encore,” the building would honor the 1937 Art Deco-style façade that Russian-born businessman Ben Rosenberg commissioned for the former lady’s dress store while also providing something the Mitchell Street area desperately needs: density and quality family housing.
“I am trying to really honor the history of that area, but more importantly honor the dreams and desires of the Mitchell Street community,” said Cotton, an alum of Marquette University’s Associates in Commercial Real Estate program. “I want to give them the opportunity to create their own stories.”
But in December, the city’s Historic Preservation Commission voted 4-3 to deny Cotton the certificate of appropriateness (COA) she needed to raze the structure.
While the Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee and the full Common Council later reversed that decision – stipulating that Cotton must have construction financing in place before getting a raze permit – the debate around the building has refocused attention on a common conundrum in this city of aging buildings: How can we make historic neighborhoods and buildings work for the people who live near them now? And how do we serve the needs of existing residents without sacrificing the richness and history of those districts? What is the best way to strike a balance between two important priorities for the city: historic preservation and economic development?
Those questions are even more prevalent in lower-income neighborhoods that can have trouble attracting the type of adaptive reuse projects that have transformed more affluent historic neighborhoods like the Third Ward and East Side.[caption id="attachment_566790" align="alignnone" width="1280"] A rendering of The Encore, a five-story, 55-unit apartment building planned by Zuwena Cotton.[/caption]
What gets protected?
The average Milwaukeean reading headlines about old buildings in the city like The Grand Department Store, the endangered 139-year-old Miller Tavern in the Third Ward, or the recently razed Columbia St. Mary buildings at North Maryland and East Hartford avenues wouldn’t be faulted for wondering why some old buildings are considered historic enough to be protected and others razed with little more than a legal notice in the paper.
The reason often has more do to with how the city, state and federal governments approach historic preservation on a grand scale, than the actual value placed on any particular building.
The city of Milwaukee has 23 locally designated historic districts that its Historic Preservation Commission has jurisdiction over, and most of those are in residential areas. The rest of the historic districts in the city are federally designated. And while many historic districts have both local and federal designations, like Mitchell Street, there are several districts in the city, like the Walker’s Point, West Side Commercial and West St. Paul Avenue Industrial districts, that only have a federal designation. That means, while the buildings within the districts are eligible for federal historic preservation tax credits, they can be razed without permission from the city as long as they don’t individually have a local historic designation.
For instance, buildings along a two-block stretch of South Second Street in the Walker’s Point district are part of their own local historic district.
There are also several seemingly historic commercial districts in the city that aren’t officially designated as a federal or local historic district. Lincoln Avenue is not designated as a historic district. Neither is National Avenue, where the iconic Bern Boys furniture building sits. There are also no historic districts along Kinnickinnic Avenue in Bay View, where the Faust Music building once sat (it was torn down to make way for a new apartment building). And although just a stone’s throw from the East Side Commercial historic district, the Art Deco-style Wisconsin Gas Building, at 626 E. Wisconsin Ave., has no historic designations. There was also no local, state or federal historic designation for the former Gugler Lithographic Co. building downtown at 1339 N. Milwaukee St., which was razed to make way for an apartment development that never happened. Today the site remains vacant.
There are plenty of buildings in Milwaukee that are located outside of historic districts but have individual historic designations, but that only happens if a city resident, or the property owner themselves, attempts to nominate the building for a historic designation. If a nomination application for a building is submitted – something that HPC staff say typically happens only once or twice a year – the HPC must still determine if the building could meet the criteria for nomination. Sometimes, even when a building is recommended by the HPC for local historic designation, the Common Council will ultimately deny the request, as was the case with the Gugler building.
Not just any old building can be nominated for a historic designation. It must have something about it that makes it remarkable, such as its architecture or how it was used in the past, explained Tim Askin, a senior planner for the HPC.
“A guy called me once and said, ‘I just bought this old air conditioning shop. Can it be designated so I can get historic preservation tax credits?’” Askin recalled. “I think I told the guy, ‘Unless Mr. Carrier invented the air conditioner in this building, it’s not happening.’”[caption id="attachment_566788" align="alignnone" width="1280"] Zuwena Cotton looks out a window of the former Grand department store.
Few demolition requests
Although numerous old buildings in Milwaukee have been razed to make way for developments, if the buildings aren’t in a historic district or aren’t already designated as historic, there is not much that can be done unless someone steps forward to try and save the building. That was the case with The Vermont, the Queen Anne-style apartment building at 610 E. Mason St. that was razed to make way for Northwestern Mutual’s 7Seventy7 apartment tower, which opened in 2018. According to Askin, a few people inquired about nominating The Vermont as a historic building, but nobody formally pursued an application.
The truth of the matter is the HPC just doesn’t consider many demolition requests for buildings that are in historic districts, or are designated historic.
A review of HPC meeting minutes from the past 13 years revealed that from January 2010 to January 2023, the HPC only considered seven demolition requests that weren’t for garages. Two of the certificate of appropriateness requests for demolition were for houses, and both of those were denied. Of the five commercial requests received during that time, four were approved. In most of those cases, the buildings themselves were not considered to be historic in and of themselves. The exception were the historic buildings razed to make way for the Milwaukee Marriott hotel at 625 N. Milwaukee St. In that case, a deal was struck with developers to retain the Wisconsin Avenue facades of the buildings and incorporate them into the design of the hotel.[caption id="attachment_566795" align="alignnone" width="1280"] The former White Eagle Hotel building.[/caption]
Mitchell Street Historic District
Nestled tightly between South 5th and 14th streets, the Mitchell Street Historic District is one of the largest commercially zoned historic districts in the city. Comprised of 90 structures, it is mostly a mix of one- and two-story commercial buildings illustrating a wide range of architectural styles from the late 19th to mid-20th century. Larger structures include the former Woolworths, Hill’s and Schuster’s department stores as well as the Kunzelmann-Esser furniture store, which is now loft apartments. There’s also the Modjeska Theater and the boarded-up former White Eagle Hotel, located just off Mitchell Street at 8th and 5th streets, that have all but been abandoned by their owners.
Today the mostly Hispanic business district is home to a bevy of small businesses, including auto shops, tattoo parlors, accounting firms and a variety of ethnic restaurants, featuring everything from Mexican to Pakistani and Syrian cuisines. Larger businesses nearby include El Rey Foods, which operates a large grocery store out of the former Sears Roebuck building at 1320 W. Burnham St., and the Mitchell Street Mall in the former Schuster’s building. The former Hill’s building is now home to the Milwaukee Public Library’s Mitchell Street branch and the Alexander Lofts apartments.
The Mitchell Street Business Improvement District – which is nearly contiguous with the historic district on Mitchell Street but also includes a handful of blocks along Forest Home Avenue and 15th Street – has about 100 businesses but only collected $116,528 annually in property assessments in 2022. That’s less than half of what the Brady Street BID, which also contains a historic district, collected in 2021.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not busy.
Located in one of the largest population centers of the city, Historic Mitchell Street was humming with activity on a recent weekday as 12th District Alderman and Common Council President José Pérez gave a quick tour of the area.
Pointing from the window of his Jeep, Pérez rattled off which of the property owners on the street – plenty of whom don’t live anywhere near the south side – are keeping up their buildings and following HPC guidelines, and which aren’t.
“That property owner did all the right things when he wanted to update the building,” Pérez said, driving down the 800 block. “This gentleman here owns where the scaffolding ends, and he is difficult. He just is. He owns that building across the street as well. He’s the type to ask forgiveness instead of permission, knowing full well he needs a COA to make changes.”
Historic districts in the city of Milwaukee
This map highlights both national and local historic districts in the city of Milwaukee.
Beauty and the blight
To Pérez, Historic Mitchell Street has enough architectural gems that it’s hard to justify protecting shabbier structures, especially when there’s a proposal to better use the site.
“For the most part, there is enough character and good enough bones in these buildings that razing structures down here is not at the top of our list, but (11th and Mitchell) happens to be a strategic corner and a site that could use something new,” Pérez said. “I don’t want the (HPC) to lower their standards from a historic preservation standpoint, but there has to be some mechanism in place to weigh out what the building will be replaced with and how long the community can put up with it being a blighted property.”
Rather than erasing the impact the Grand had on Mitchell Street during the years it was open (1907-1982), Cotton said she is interested in honoring the stories of both Mitchell Street’s past and its present. Plans for the project include creating an opportunity center on the first floor where all neighborhood residents could attend a variety of classes on financial literacy, home ownership, career training and business development. Although she must wait until the end of this year to apply for affordable housing tax credits, she said she is already working to open the opportunity center in the existing building.
“I was told that maybe I should find an alternate location for the building, but I really can’t because I have come to know and love the people in that community,” she said. “I have walked up and down the blocks of the entire district. I have talked to over 65 different residents who are in support of this project.”[gallery size="full" td_select_gallery_slide="slide" columns="1" ids="566791,566792,566793,566794"]
Preservation as a catalyst for growth
But tearing down any historic buildings in older commercial districts – even those with as many interesting, old buildings as Mitchell Street – can mean eliminating the very structures that could someday make those districts extremely attractive to developers, especially those who are genuinely interested in improving the neighborhood, not just collecting rents from across the state or country.
To Alderman Robert Bauman, who represents downtown Milwaukee and the Third Ward, the key is finding a balance between old and new, and having a vision that values what makes a neighborhood unique.
“(The character of historic buildings) sets your community apart, because you are preserving the historical aspects of your city, and you’re preserving the architecture … as opposed to building row upon row of the same cookie-cutter apartment buildings where there is no sense of being anywhere special,” said Bauman, who sits on the HPC.
And Bauman, who has served the 4th District for nearly 20 years, has seen just what a focus on preservation can achieve. When he was first circulating nomination papers to run for office in 1992, a time when the mostly abandoned Third Ward was just beginning to see reinvestment, he remembers there only being a handful of registered voters living in the neighborhood.
Nancy O’Keefe, former executive director of the Historic Third Ward Association, recalls the area only having about 120 apartments when she joined the organization that year. Most of those units were in The Broadway at 234 N. Broadway, a former warehouse turned apartment building across from what is now Onesto, she said. The building was converted to condos two years later.
What really spurred the adaptive reuse projects we see in the Third Ward today, said Bauman, was a concentrated focus on the neighborhood by former Mayor John Norquist.
Unlike the urban renewal projects of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, which cleared entire blocks of historic homes and commercial buildings in the name of progress, Norquist’s plan to bring the Third Ward back to life focused on making the buildings themselves a magnet for redevelopment.
“It was creating a physical infrastructure environment that was conducive to private real estate development, and then things just mushroomed from there,” said Bauman. “But it had structures – good, solid structures. And it built on those bones and created a new neighborhood almost from scratch.”
While only a few buildings have been razed over the years in the Third Ward, Bauman notes that what works for one neighborhood, might not work for another.
“If your first principle is historic preservation, then you make it work most of the time, understanding that there may be cases where it doesn’t work,” he said. “So, it really is a case-by-case situation. If we were solely focused on historic preservation, we would never have progressed west of (Milwaukee co-founder Solomon) Juneau’s cabin.”
Pérez agrees, especially after seeing buildings with local historic designations in his district continue to degrade as they wait for rehabilitation or redevelopment.
“Not every building can be blighted, waiting for the knight in shining armor to come in with historic tax credits,” he said. “Maybe I will become more of a believer when that happens with the White Eagle Hotel.”
Jeremy Ebersole, executive director of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, can understand Pérez’s frustration. Although the MPA lobbied for the HPC to deny the demolition request for The Grand, he has seen where the preservation community has too often been focused on preserving places in more affluent areas, or only springing to action when there is an official request to raze a structure.
“I would be the first to say that in the preservation field, at least historically, we have been too elitist as we have thought about what preservation can be,” Ebersole said. “That system was built to reward the places that have resources, but I think that’s been changing over the last decade or so.”
So, what happens in places like Mitchell Street, that are outside of the economic hub of the city, and don’t have the kind of large historic structures that lend themselves to lucrative redevelopment projects?
That’s a question Milwaukee developer Josh Jeffers gets a lot. His firm, J. Jeffers & Co., specializes in historic adaptive reuse projects, most of which are multi-million-dollar redevelopments like the transformation of the Milwaukee Athletic Club or the Horlick Malted Milk factory in Racine.
But Jeffers is quick to note that he also does smaller rehabilitations, as long as he can get federal and state historic preservation tax credits. One such example is his firm’s rehabilitation of a single-story commercial building at 6519 W. North Ave. in Wauwatosa for local burger restaurant Crafty Cow.
“For much larger projects, you get more sophisticated developers who will come in and jump through all the hoops, and for the smaller, kind of main street projects, it’s the same amount of work for a much smaller project,” Jeffers said. “That being said, I have always been a big proponent of developers taking on smaller commercial buildings. … If you have a $1 million rehabilitation, you can get up to $400,000 of your construction costs funded through state and federal credits.”
The problem on Mitchell Street is that a lot of building owners just aren’t interested in making building improvements, even if those improvements could be subsidized, Askin said.
“What I usually hear is, ‘My taxes are too high already,’” he said.
In addition to historic preservation tax credits, properties are also eligible for Department of City Development grants that can provide funding to spruce up both the exterior and interior of commercial buildings. Sadly, many property owners on Mitchell Street either don’t know about the grants or don’t tell their tenants about them, Pérez said.
That lack of interest, especially from out-of-state property owners, is frustrating for Pérez, who sees the economic potential of Mitchell Street and other parts of the south side. Sometimes, he will get calls from those owners asking him what they should do with the historic structures they own.
“I’ll tell them, ‘Get up here, do this yourself. I can’t give you business advice,’” Pérez said. “I know what’s needed. It’s for operators and business owners to get down here and look at the buildings, talk to people and figure out what’s best.”