Razing Historic Buildings Still Only Workable Course, Mandel Says

But a host of organizations and members of the public say city would be selling out its heritage by allowing demolition of any of the Eschweiler Buildings.

After a month of pondering alternatives, Barry Mandel, who wants to buy and redevelop the Eschweiler Campus on the County Grounds, repeated Wednesday that he would need to demolish three out of four historic buildings for his plan to work.

But preservationists were out in force to condemn any course that failed to preserve the buildings as a group, which they said has always been Wauwatosa's intention and official position.

Mandel, president of Mandel Group, with lead staff and consultants, made a second presentation Wednesday night to the Wauwatosa Historic Preservation Commission, . No formal proposal was made then or now, and no action was contemplated by the commission, but the message was strong.

For Mandel Group to justify buying and redeveloping the property, he and his planners said, the only economically feasible course was to save the largest Eschweiler building and tear down the rest.

[Editor's note: It has been reported here and elsewhere that "four of the five" Eschweiler buildings would be torn down under Mandel's plan. There are five buildings in the group; however, one is a utility building added to the campus decades later than the originals and not designed by Alexander Eschweiler. Hence, it is not an "Eschweiler building" and has no historic designation or protection. It would be torn down as well, but that is outside any purview of the Historic Preservation Commission.]

The group's study of the buildings indicated that rehabilitating them to certified historic standards for use as residential properties would cost a total of $15 million; $11 million in "hard costs" of physical restructuring and finishing and $4 million in "soft costs" such as consultation and design fees.

The structural layout of the buidings is such that only 41 apartment units could have been carved out of the four of them, Mandel's group said, and so the per-unit cost – around $365,000 each – would be so high to start and would make them so unprofitable going forward that it would in effect kill the whole project.

Mandel's redevelopment plan for the property, encompassing about eight acres, hinges on building a total of 192 apartment units. In his current thinking, all of those would be new construction in modern buildings ringing Eschweiler's original Administration Building.

Not an efficient use of building space

The Eschweilers were built to house the Milwaukee County School of Agriculture and Domestic Economy.

The Administration Building, the largest of the group, would be retained and rehabilitated to house leasing offices for the apartment complex, a theater, a fitness center, three offices for non-profit organizations, and a conference room in the third-floor gymnasium.

In looking at the other three buildings, Mandel's group found that their designs were very "inefficient" for apartments. Efficiency refers, in this case, to the amount of gross square-footage available for profitable use.

In measuring building efficiency, a developer or property manager subtracts the common space such as hallways and structural footprint from the gross space to find the rentable living space.

In new construction, said Phil Aiello, Mandel's senior development manager, building efficiency is about 83 to 84 percent of total square footage. In aggregate, the Eschweilers are about 53 percent efficient.

Aiello illustrated by showing some of Eschweiler's original ink-on-linen plan drawings, which show wide hallways and stairwells and interior supporting walls taking up nearly half the space on some floors, and in third-floor plans, large low areas under steeply pitched roofs where residents wouldn't be able to stand upright.

Alternatives considered but rejected

In looking at alternatives, after a skeptical public reaction to last month's introduction, Mandel said that one idea he explored was a compromise to retain one more building, removing only two.

That, he said, was the suggestion of a member of the Preservation Commission.

But he said the economics were still bad, and from a design standpoint did nothing to preserve the "quadrangle" concept of the original campus design.

His architect, Jim Shieids, said that design renderings retaining either of the two buildings aligned perpendicular and to the west side of the Administration Building left simply "an object" rather than an integral part of Eschweiler's vision.

Since, in their opinion, it would also be an economically useless building and a drain on the development's profitability, it would add nothing of value from any standpoint.

Another idea, a brainstorm of Mandel's, would leave the three smaller buildings standing as unoccupied "ruins," to be "allowed to age gracefully."

Mandel said his thinking was inspired by his travels to ancient sites including the Colosseum and Spanish Steps in Rome, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the Acropolis in Athens and Machu Picchu in Peru.

"The problem with that," he said, "is that with the exception of the Wailing Wall, there are not people living there."

His financial, legal and insurance advisors, he said, frowned on the liability issues involved with having old, vacant buildings in the middle of a residential development. The buildings, he said, are already an "attractive nuisance," in legal terms, and that would not change.

In the end, Mandel and Aiello said, that brought them back to their previous conclusion, that the only way to successfully redevelop the site was to remove the three smaller buildings and focus resources on properly preserving the largest and most important, the Administration Building.

"Short of being able to save all the buildings, we come back to our original proposal," Mandel said.

Historic District must be kept intact, groups say

Many of those in the audience were the same as at the May meeting, but with a month to digest and research the unofficial proposal, they came prepared with much stronger arguments against it.

The most compelling arguments centered around the fact that no independent assessment of the buildings had been conducted – and especially upon a fact that had been glossed over the first time around: The Eschweilers are listed on the National Registry of Historic Places not as individual buildings but as a Historic District, incorporating all the buildings and their grounds as a whole, and not just for architecture but for their cultural significance as a whole.

Jill Wickham read a letter from the Wauwatosa Historical Society reminding the commission that it was WHS that had proposed the Eschweiler District for National Registry status in the first place and vigorously opposing demolition of any of the historic buildings.

Cheryl Nenn of Milwaukee Riverkeeper reminded the commission that Wauwatosa had repeatedly adopted plans and resolutions to preserve all the buildings and their grounds intact, dating back to the plan developed by Kubala-Washatko Architects through comprehensive community input.

In fact, Nenn noted, the scope of new building in the economic development zone carved out of the Northeast Quadrant of the County Grounds was arrived at as a means to subsidize the preservation of the Eschweiler Campus as a whole, through a tax district.

David Plank, himself a historic architect, suggested that the Preservation Commission, in its mission and purview, had to look at the Eschweiler Campus as a complete historic district and would be remiss in its authority in allowing any demolition.

By tearing down three of the four buildings and buiding anew around them, he said, "You don't have a district anymore. I would wonder, if this were carried through, if it wouldn't have to be delisted" from the National Historic Register.

John Pokrandt, former candidate for mayor and now a Democratic candidate for the 13th Assembly District, echoed that, saying that the plan would destroy the integrity of the Eschweiler Historic District, leaving "one building, out of context, surrounded by new development."

Frank Butterfield, field officer for the National Trust for Historic Places, made a statement strongly urging an independent analysis of the condition of the buildings, saying there was not enough evidence or due diligence done to prove that the buildings were not structurally or economically viable for any purpose.

Passions for preservation, no dollars and cents

So far, in sum, Mandel, the city and other entities including the UWM Real Estate Foundation, the public, and indeed the buildings themselves appear to be between a rock and a hard place: Everyone, including Mandel, would like to save all the buildings, but no one has come up with an economically sound proposal to do so.

Conspicuously absent from both meetings has been the UWM Real Estate Foundation, which is still the owner of the property and which issued the request for proposals that Mandel won.

In a year and a half since Mandel responded to that RFP, it has found no way to meet the condition of preserving all the buildings, prompting many to call for a rejection of Mandel's plan and a new request, setting the clock back to zero.

That, said Ald. Dennis McBride, is nowhere in the scope of the Historic Preservation Commission's authority, as it can only act on specific proposals brought before it, voting them up or down.

The Real Estate Foundation alone, as owner of the site, can call for new proposals, he said – and would do so only if Wauwatosa first rejected Mandel.

In the meantime, the Eschweiler Buildings, with city, state and national status as valued pieces of our shared history, decay year-to-year in a state of benign neglect.

They repose in a state of romantic limbo: Loved, but unwanted; cherished yet set aside.

Deb Strzelecki June 14, 2012 at 02:03 PM
I believe the county owned the grounds and the buildings until the deal with UWM. Tenants rented/leased the buildings just to keep them occuppied. Over the 2 decades I've been walking there, I had the opportunity to talk with many of the employees that worked in the Eschweiler buildings. There were many more historic buildings peppered all over the land west and east of the freeway that have all since been razed the past 25 or so years. I remember an elderly couple that lived in a stucco building with their two Samoyeds opposite of Potter Rd. on the eastside of Hwy 100. They always looked so happy tending to their gardens. That area is now a multi acre parking lot which is vacant 16 hours a day during the workweek and 24 hours a day on weekends. MIlwaukee county government has always squandered money (tell them they will be getting $3, so they go out and spend $5, then whine that they are broke and have to raise taxes) and has a very poor history of maintaining structures. It seems whatever is managed by the county usually ends up falling apart, no matter how much money is thrown at it.
Deb Strzelecki June 14, 2012 at 02:06 PM
John: Bravo, well said. Usually the people that are the most uninformed are the most hostile.
Deb Strzelecki June 14, 2012 at 02:22 PM
Tosa had better get used to being as crime ridden as Milwaukee if they continue to want to build and pave over their remaining green spaces. Mayfair is a great example of this. The real problems started when the movie theaters were enlarged and the "video arcade" was put in to attract more young shoppers and gamers, which it did. There are still plenty of younger shoppers at Mayfair, it's just that some don't believe they have to pay for what they take. Tosa, the new Milwaukee West. Get used to it.
Deb Strzelecki June 14, 2012 at 02:30 PM
TJ: Agree. Seems like the ones that want to tear down anything over 15 years old and pave over everything always seem so angry and resort to name calling. Maybe they should chill and take a long walk outdoors.
Alfred June 14, 2012 at 02:32 PM
Hey Deb, since you and TJ have such a thing for these piles of rubble, why don't you pass around your tye dye hat amongst the other bleeding heart hippy tyes?


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