County Violated Law in Selling Eschweiler Buildings, State Official Says
Milwaukee County improperly sold buildings and historic district to UWM Real Estate Foundation without notifying the state Historical Society or imposing covenants, according to a legal specialist. In the extreme, he says, that could negate the sale.
A legal specialist for the Wisconsin Historical Society has notified the Attorney General's Office that he believes that the sale of the Eschweiler Campus Historic District by Milwaukee County to the UWM Real Estate Foundation violated state law.
He went on to say because of that, Wauwatosa should deny any request to demolish any of the Eschweiler buildings — and that in one scenario, the violations could result in as drastic an action as vacating the original land sale.
Chip Brown, an attorney and government assistance and training specialist, said the county failed to notify the state Historical Society of the sale of the historic property and failed to obtain a conservation easement to protect it.
Both measures are required by statute, Brown said.
In a letter to the Wauwatosa Historic Preservation Commission, which on Thursday heard a plan by developer Barry Mandel to demolish four of the five buildings on the property, Brown wrote:
"We believe that violations of Wisconsin's historic preservation laws have occurred. The title of ownership has not transferred properly, pursuant to law. The District should have been protected with a preservation easement ... and, Milwaukee County should have provided notice to us of the sale of the District. We believe that demolition, or any activity that may be contemplated that may affect the District at this time must be reviewed by our office prior to any final decision on such an activity."
Brown concludes: "Based on the foregoing, we do hereby request that the City of Wauwatosa Landmarks Commission deny approval for demolition of any of the buildings constituting the District."
City doesn't see itself involved in dispute – yet
City officials were quick to point out that Brown's letter questioned dealings between Milwaukee County and the Real Estate Foundation and said only that discussions between Wauwatosa and Mandel Group had come to its attention.
"I don't think it has any bearing on what we do," City Attorney Alan Kesner said. "There is nothing formal in front of us right now. (Mandel) has made an informational presentation so far. There is no action that we are prepared to take at this time."
Mandel did, however, announce in Thursday's session that he would need to raze the four of buildings if he were to proceed with his plans for residential redevelopment of the tract as apartments, including 192 new-built units surrounding the remaining Eschweiler building.
He did not just suggest but asserted that he would have to withdraw from the project if he were forced to retain all the buildings and restore them to historic preservation standards, at a cost he estimated at $11 million.
That would throw the buildings and the land immediately surrounding them back to the Real Estate Foundation and force it to put out another request for proposals to redevelop the historic district.
And, if the state Historical Society should insist and prevail, it could mean that RFP would have to go out with a strict proviso that all the buildings must be preserved.
State would have deemed sale an 'adverse effect'
In an interview, Brown said that he agreed with Kesner that Wauwatosa's Historic Preservation Commission and Common Council are autonomous and cannot be compelled to act or not act based on his issues involving the county and UWM. But he said that such actions could be halted or overturned if the state finds there were improprieties predating Mandel's bid to redevelop the site.
"There are two sales here," Brown said. "One from a public entity, the county, to a private one, and now a proposed sale from that to another private entity.
"The county should have produced a covenant or covenants in the first sale, and we would be required to review and approve those covenants."
Brown said that his office would have decided whether the terms of the sale would have had an adverse effect on the property, and if so would have required negotiations with the parties before they proceeded.
In this case, Brown said, "Had we been notified of the proposed sale of the property, we would have determined that such an action constituted an adverse effect to the property. We would have required negotiation with Milwaukee County to address this adverse effect."
County officials declined to comment on the matter for the time being, for reasons similar to Wauwatosa's. Brown's letter had been addressed to Tosa officials, not to county officers, and they in fact were unaware of it until Wauwatosa Patch forwarded it Tuesday.
A call to the UWM Real Estate Foundation was not returned.
Negotiations could still take place – or not
Brown said that he could not speculate on the eventual outcome of his findings of violations.
"I've already forwarded them to the attorney general," he said, "but they have not responded yet. Remember, I only heard about this last week.
"When they do respond, we'll find out where we're headed. We could demand that negotiations take place.
"In the extremes, we could do nothing at all or, yes, the original sale could be vacated, and they'd have to start over."
Complicating matters further, Brown said, is that without having been informed of the terms of the sale, he doesn't know whether the Historic District can be separated from the sale of the entire tract now being called Innovation Park.
"The Eschweiler Campus is defined by the National Registry," he said. "It is on the National Register of Historic Places. I don't know whether those were the specific boundaries included in the sale, or whether there was any separation of the District in the sale."
Brown said that could be a problem for all parties, including Wauwatosa and Mandel, if UWM's proposed sale to Mandel in any way divides the Historic District.