While there are still pieces that need to fall into place, in both the short and long term, plans are coming together to make possible the preservation and restoration of the historic Eschweiler Buildings.
After months of discussions, the UWM Real Estate Foundation is nearly ready to sign a lease with the Forest Exploration Center, under Executive Director John Gee, to work toward occupying the buildings with a charter school.
Gee said Monday that while there are still some details to work out, he's preparing to go to his board of directors on March 6 to ask for two actions:
- Approval of a one-year lease, for a consideration, with an option to then extend that to a very long term lease, "perhaps 75 or 100 years," Gee said;
- Approval to let competitive bids for architectural and contracting firms to begin preliminary planning for restoring the buildings.
If that sounds like it's pretty much a done deal, it isn't quite. The lease isn't signed yet, and Gee said it would be the end of this week before the final terms are likely to be worked out.
More than that, Gee has only recently begun a fund-raising campaign to pay for the restoration, with the hope of opening an FEC charter school in the fall of 2014.
Estimates of the cost of rehabilitating the campus as a school — and doing a complete historical restoration in the process — have run from $10 million to $15 million, and most lately toward the high side of that range.
Gee said that the bi-partite lease arrangement had to do with using historic restoration tax credits to help pay for the process.
The FEC would be signing the first-year lease with the UWM Foundation as current property owner. But during that year, the property is likely to change hands to Mandel Group for the development of new residential apartment buildings on the parcel.
Phil Aiello, Mandel's project leader on the proposed development, could not be reached for comment, but he has said before, and both Gee and Common Council President Dennis McBride say now, that president and CEO Barry Mandel is enthusiatically on board.
Having the Eschweiler buildings under reconstruction for an appropriate and compatible use should pave the way for Wauwatosa's Historic Preservation Commission to approve Mandel's project, but that isn't accomplished yet, either.
Not only are the buildings themselves designated as historic individually, together and with their surroundings they constitute a designated historic district.
However, local, state and federal laws and guidelines governing historic buildings and districts do not preclude compatible new construction.
Common Council President Dennis McBride said that he had been in numerous meetings and on phone calls between the group of parties involved, and he believes the deal is ready to go through.
However, McBride cautioned, "No one should believe that this is the final chapter in the preservation of the Eschweiler Buildings. If anything, it is just the beginning of the next of many more chapters.
"Now, really, comes the hard part, and that's raising a whole lot of money. That's having this community step forward and help raise the funds to make the Forest Exploration Center possible. We've put a mechanism in place to make it possible.
"But good intentions do not save buildings."