Sometimes things don't go exactly as planned – and sometimes that's a good thing.
An open discussion Wednesday night of the future of the historic Eschweiler buildings, convened by the County Grounds Coalition, was intended in concept to be a source of creative and productive ideas for preserving the structures.
It turned into a vigorous policy debate, something its chief organizer afterward acknowledged was probably more valuable at this, "the eleventh hour."
She, Barb Agnew, founder of the Friends of the Monarch Trail and a Wauwatosa businesswoman, moderated the meeting and asked at the beginning, and more than once during, and again at the end, that the discussion focus as much as possible on positive, proactive proposals for preserving and using the buildings.
But in a room occupied by about 50 people who were all pretty much either dedicated and passionate preservationists – quite a number of them professionals at it – or current, former or prospective elected officials, the mood clearly was first to dissect public policy and process.
In the end, even with so many already well-informed people present, the outcome was a lot more collective clarity on the matters of...
- Through what decisions have we have arrived at this point, where there is a serious threat of some of the buildings being torn down? and,
- What are the mechanisms that would either bring that about or keep it from happening?
Buildings suddenly threatened with demolition
Agnew started with a brief overview of the long history of the buildings and of efforts to preserve and restore them over the past 10 years or so.
As to where we stand now, she reminded everyone, the current owner, the UWM Real Estate Foundation, accepted a redevelopment proposal from residential developer Mandel Group that called for preserving the buildings as part of a larger apartment complex including new construction on the grounds.
Preservation was stated as a requirement in the foundation's request for proposals, published a year and a half ago, but now Mandel has said it can make the project work only if it can demolish three of the four historically designated structures.
Mandel came before the Wauwatosa Historic Preservation Commission on May 3 with an informational presentation – not a formal proposal – in which its team said the buildings were not economically viable and that it could afford to save only the largest one, the Administration Building.
Looking for "constructive ideas from concerned citizens with inputs from experts" to counter Mandel's plan with a viable proposal for preservation of all four buildings, Agnew first turned the floor over to Frank Butterfield, Wisconsin field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Butterfield said that based on his experience, Mandel appeared not to have done due diligence before submitting his proposal, if only now he had found that the proposal wouldn't work.
Butterfield likened it to a bad business decision in which someone offered too much for a property and then realized the only way to make a profit would be to do something not allowed by local zoning.
Why, Butterfield asked, should be it the City of Wauwatosa's problem – or for that matter, the problem of the people of Wauwatosa and of Milwaukee County and Wisconsin, whose legacy is in the Eschweilers – to remedy a private investor's poor decision against its own policies?
Representatives of neither Mandel Group nor the UWM Real Estate Foundation attended.
Not a new question, but....
Those policies are and have been long in place, reminded Nancy Welch, who was Wauwatosa's director of community development during most of the last decade.
"The city has taken the position in half a dozen resolutions dating back to the Kubala-Washatko Plan that the Eschweiler Buildings were to be preserved," she said.
The Kubala-Washatko Plan, so-named for the Madison architectural firm that developed it, was a conceptual plan formally adopted by the city that called for preserving the Eschweilers, preferably as an executive conference center serving County Grounds institutions, with the city supporting their restoration through the creation of a tax-incremental financing district (a TIF).
"The TIF is in place," Welch said, "but the city is subsidizing the construction of roads and utilities like water mains and not preservation of the buildings."
Dennis McBride, 4th District alderman, president of the Common Council and a member of the Historic Preservation Commission, acknowledged that Welch was right about the city's past positions, but he said that from a public policy perspective, only the most recent resolution was in force.
That was taken 2½ years ago, he said, and yes, it did call for preservation of the buildings while also allowing new construction on the Eschweiler grounds – and not prescribing the use of the historic buildings, leaving that to the owner and the developer, but ultimately with the city's planning and zoning approval.
"The intention was for the new construction to pay for the preservation of the historic buildings," McBride said.
One preservationist, Jonathan Beck of Alexander Co. in Madison, asked whether Mandel's suggested demolition plan – and the UWM Foundation's silence about it – wasn't an outright "bait and switch," in which UWM wanted to "flip" the property.
Beck suggested that the public, even experts and informed advocates for preservation, had been duped into complacency in the decade-long belief that firmly established public policy would protect the buildings.
Now, he and several others said, preservationists, and simply pure lovers of the County Grounds, were being confronted with the prospect of demolition with next to no time to mount a defense.
Is it Innovation Park or no Innovation Park?
McBride interjected that, from the city government's point of view, a driver behind consideration of any serious proposal Mandel might make was the need for UWM Real Estate Foundation to make its next payment to Milwaukee County, which holds the deed to the property.
"It isn't just the buildings," McBride said. "It is – let's call it 9 acres – of probably the most valuable land in Southeast Wisconsin.
"UWM (Foundation) needs the money from the sale of that land to make its next payment to the county."
That payment, projected at around $5 million, is due in February 2014, with further and smaller installments due in years after, McBride said. It was in the city's interest, he said, that UWM's Innovation Park plan not falter because it couldn't afford the land at the outset.
That only kindled another outcry of, "Why are UWM's fiscal problems our problem?" and for a couple of minutes it was 49-to-McBride.
McBride likes those odds, though, and he stood firmly by the need for Wauwatosa to support UWM's public-private research park development.
It was noted by others that UWM, the academic institution, had gone to the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents asking for funding on the order of $70 million to develop Innovation Park and had been turned down.
That left the university to find private donor funding on its own, and UWM turned the task over to the Real Estate Foundation, a private non-profit corporation that supports the university's mission but is not beholden to its administration.
Suggesting that Innovation Park was to Wauwatosa too important to dismiss, McBride challenged those in the room to come up with a proactive plan: something that would preserve the Eschweilers in a profitable way without nixing or seriously delaying UWM's plans.
Comparing the issue to that of the debate over power lines that has ignited controversy on the city's west side, McBride said that, as in that battle, citizens "need to propose, not just oppose."
Decision-making time is nigh
The trouble with that, preservationists said, is that there is precious little time for anyone to put together a fully fledged – and funded – proposal to counter any that Mandel might soon make.
Mandel is scheduled to make yet another informational presentation at the next meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission on Aug. 1. If principal Barry Mandel stays in the game, he would be expected to finally make a formal proposal to the city in early September, McBride said.
"Everyone needs to understand," said former alderman Jerry Stepaniak, "that the (historic) commission needs to act on any proposal that comes before it. If the commission votes it down, it could come before the Common Council" on appeal.
Stepaniak, like McBride not one to mince words, said that an unfunded counter-proposal would likely fall upon deaf ears, as first the Historic Preservation Commission and, if it refused, then the Common Council has to consider the firm proposal on the table.
It is, after all, the UWM' Foundation's property, he and McBride agreed, not Wauwatosa's, and there is no way that the city can demand that it reopen its request for proposals. It can only act, up or down, on what is before it.
Brian Faltinson, chairman of the Preservation Commission, said that it would have to make a decision within 45 days after first consideration of a formal proposal.
The train has left the station – can it be brought back?
The light that seemed to dawn on everyone in the room not actively involved in negotitions was that time was dearly drawing nigh for some consortium of citizens to put forward a better plan.
Agnew said that her final plea drew a number of people who said they would work to quickly develop a counter to any proposal to tear down any of the Eschweilers.
Speaking after the meeting adjourned, though, Stepaniak said that he agreed with McBride only half-way on the need to make a fleshed-out positive proposal without merely denigrating Mandel's plan.
"Propose, yes," Stepaniak said. "But oppose first, and then propose."
"This train is out of the station and running rapidly up the tracks," he said. "You have to slow it down first and then stop it before you can reverse it and get it back to the station."