Saying that the historic Eschweiler Buildings on the County Grounds have proved too costly to rehabilitate as apartments, developer Barry Mandel proposed Tuesday night a plan to tear down four of the five structures.
Under his proposal to the Wauwatosa Historic Preservation Commission, only the largest, known as the Administration Building, would be preserved as a centerpiece to the development.
However, he also said that rather than tear the others down, he would happily give them away – free to anyone who could demonstrate an ability to restore and maintain them for a compatible use.
Mandel, CEO of the Mandel Group, cited offices for non-profit organizations as a preferred use but indicated he was willing to entertain any reasonable proposal.
Before you line up for your free building, though, you should know why Mandel doesn't want them.
After analyzing the costs of restoring and reconfiguring all five buildings to historic preservation standards for use in his larger residential apartment complex, the estimate came to a whopping $11 million – far more than he had anticipated, he said, and much more than he could afford.
The five buildings together would have yielded only 41 small dwelling units of about 800 square feet each, and those would have cost $365,000 each to produce.
"It's much more expensive to retrofit than to build new," said Phil Aiello of Mandel's firm. "It would have required a subsidy of $5 million to $7 million to make it viable."
Aiello said that the firm had sought such subsidies, including a 9 percent tax credit through the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority. But that would have required a waiver of WHEDA's $200,000 per unit limit, and it was declined.
"Up until now, we thought it was unthinkable to take down one or more than one of the Eschweiler Buildings," Mandel said. "We planned on saving all the buildings. It was unthinkable not to.
"But we had to change our mindset. We had to do a gut check.
"So, yes, we are now proposing taking down four of the buildings, but in doing so, saving the best – the Adminstration Building."
Mandel presented a design plan that would not, in fact, increase the amount of new building he had already proposed for the tract. There would be no replacement of the "lost buildings" with new-built units, but rather gardens or plazas outlining their footprints.
The Administration Building, Mandel said, woulld "memorialize" Alexander Eschweiler, one of the most significant architects Milwaukee has produced, and the Milwaukee County School of Agriculture, for which the buildings were originally created.
The Administration Building would not hold any residential units, but perhaps a leasing office for the larger complex, common areas for residents, such as a gymnasium, public areas and offices for non-profits such as the Friends of the Monarch Trail.
The meeting had been moved to the larger of the committee rooms, but most chairs were full – the largest crowd for a Historic Preservation Commission meeting in memory, chairman Brian Faltinson said.
No one spoke in favor of the proposal, but most comments in the "opposed" category were really more polite questions or suggestions.
Former Community Development Director Nanch Welch, removed from office last year, did have some choice words.
"What I'm seeing here is a betrayal of the public trust," she said. Preservation of all the buildings "has been approved over and over again. This has been going on for years. It goes contrary to what the public has been told."
Resident Dave Maddox echoed that he felt betrayed, "having sat in many meetings in which the main component of discussion was the preservation of the buildings."
Maddox wondered, ironically, if "It may be that their historic designation is causing them to be demolished," referring to the costs of meeting historic preservation standards.
David Plank, himself a historic preservation architect, and the husband of Nancy Welch, questioned whether Mandel Group had tried to negotiate every avenue with state and federal thistoric preservation boards.
"I have done many historic restorations, and I have had historic preservationists say to me, 'There is room for compromise. A historic preservation that happens is better than one that gets torn down.'"
On the commission itself, Sharon Eiff told Mandel, "There is great disappointment, and emotion. The people of Wauwatosa have been at this since 1995. This community has always found a way – it is who we are."
Eiff also questioned the assertion that the buildings were in any way as bad a shape as they are being portrayed.
"I have been in them many times," she said, "and I'm sorry that the pictures in the paper were the worst they could find.
"People would be amazed at the integrity of these buildings, how sound they are, what great shape they are in. Sure there is some damage, but there is a lot of integrity."