The challenges are great, the prospects uncertain, the result of success or failure — possibly immense.
An 11th-hour plan for saving the Eschweiler Buildings on the County Grounds in Wauwatosa has gained enough momentum for the city, the property owner and the proposed developer to all get on board.
In the process, it could be the key to keeping UWM's Innovation Park from dematerializing. The challenge is the cost — from $10 million upward, probably all in donated funds.
John Gee, the executive director of the Forestry Exploration Center — itself still a concept — had proposed building the center and an associated charter school as new construction on Department of Natural Resources land north of Swan Boulevard.
Now, Gee says that instead of erecting a 35,000- to 40,000-square-foot building there, he's proposing a much smaller facility on that tract while taking over and restoring the Eschweilers as part of an extended campus.
"The idea is to take the original Forestry Exploration Center plan and divide it into two," Gee said. "There's 50,000 square feet in those buildings (the Eschweilers).
"But the Eschweiler site does not accommodate a lot of parking, so we'd put most of the charter school functions there, where it would be mostly drop-off traffic."
The DNR site facility would host activities and programming for regional visitors, Gee said.
The division is possible because the DNR-owned woodland north of Swan Boulevard, where the forestry center was proposed, will in the near future be connected to the Eschweiler property through a pedestrian underpass.
During early Zoo Interchange construction next year, Swan will be elevated to cross Hwy. 45, accommodating a ground-level tunnel joining trail systems on either side. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation has already approved the underpass and incorporated it in its planning.
Proposal doesn't change need for development
"One thing everybody needs to be sure of," Gee said, "is that this does not replace Barry Mandel's planned development there, with new construction of whatever square footage."
"This does not happen without (Mandel)," Gee said. "If he feels that it is executable, and he seems to, then it can happen."
Mandel is out of the country and could not be reached, nor could his project manager, Phil Aiello.
The Eschweiler Campus, a local, state and federally registered historic district, was sold by Milwaukee County to the UWM Real Estate Foundation in 2010 as part of the larger Innovation Park tract.
The UWM foundation in turn put out a request for proposals to redevelop the property, with a requirement that the Eschweiler buildings be preserved and restored. Mandel's development firm, Mandel Group, applied and was selected for a proposed apartment complex incorporating 192 new units along with more in the historic buildings.
But Mandel announced in May that the plan had proved economically unfeasible because of the high cost and low return of redeveloping the old buildings for residential use. He told the Historic Preservation Commission that he would need to demolish three of the four historic buildings, preserving only the largest one.
Mandel also made a promise then, however — he said he would give the Eschweiler Buildings to anyone who could come up with a workable plan to restore and use them compatibly with his project.
Gee wants to take Mandel up on that, and all indications are that Mandel approves.
Unsuited to apartments, perfect for a school
The very thing that stymied Mandel — the layout of the buildings could accommodate only 41 apartments within just 53 percent of their floor space — is no problem at all for Gee.
"Most of those rooms are configured the way I would want them for a school," Gee said. "There are classrooms and labs — that's what it was built for."
Opened 100 years ago as the Milwaukee County School of Agriculture and Domestic Economy, the original purpose of the campus is remarkably close to Gee's modern vision.
"It was built as a regional center for science-based education," Gee said. "I have a copy of a 1915 industrial magazine that describes it as a product-based institution. This is in the same spirit that was there in 1915."
Gee is also not daunted by the condition of the buildings.
"I've been through them many times," Gee said, "and taken people through them, and everyone I've taken was surprised at what good shape they're in. There's a lot of grafitti and broken glass, but structurally, they're very sound."
What is daunting is the amount of money it will take to make it all happen — $10 million to $12 million for both the new Forestry Center and the rehab of the Eschweilers, Gee estimates.
That's about the same as his previous estimate for a single facility at the DNR woods site, and likely wouldn't be less expensive by using the existing historic buildings, Gee said.
"In my opinion," he said, "it would be a wash. We want to do a proper restoration. I would have to raise a significant amount of money."
One advantage Gee has, though, is that he wouldn't need every dime up front. His plan woud be to start with the main Administration Building at the same time Mandel starts his new construction.
Mandel intended to save the Administration Building and would probably still use the ground floor for leasing offices, Gee said, and restoring that building together would be less of an impediment to Mandel's plans.
The next step, Gee said, would be to fix up the exteriors of the other three buildings and do minimal interior work to bring them up to occupancy.
Finally, some years down the road most likely, all the buildings would be fully restored, inside and out.
With all aboard, city says 'Go for it'
Mayor Kathy Ehley and Common Council President Dennis McBride, who is also a member of the Historic Preservation Commission, said they have met repeatedly with Gee and the principals from UWM and Mandel.
"I encouraged him to move forward because we wanted to turn over every stone to find a way to save the Eschweiler Buildings," McBride said. "The city is facilitating it, not paying for it. UWM is interested, Barry (Mandel) is interested.
"We've encouraged John (Gee) to start raising money. Mandel has talked to his lenders about having a school facility in the middle of his residential development, and he said they gave it their OK.
"Barry is sharing architectural drawings. Everyone is doing everything they can, because this is perhaps the last, best effort to save these buildings."
Mayor Ehley said that the City of Wauwatosa would continue to bring together the people who can make Gee's project happen.
"Everyone agrees that this is a really worthy concept," Ehley said. "This is the first entity that has moved forward with a plan. This was the first step that said, 'Go for it.'"
Lindberg would pool regional resources
The stakes are beyond calculation, according to a notable private citizen — Wauwatosa's Distinguished Citizen for 2011 — who has wholeheartedly signed on to help.
Denise Lindberg, the driving force behind the rebuilding of Tosa Pool at Hoyt Park — an $8 million donor-supported project completed in five years — sees Gee's proposal as critical to the future of not just the Eschweilers but to Southeast Wisconsin.
Lindberg wants the buildings saved as much as anyone, but in the bigger picture, she sees that UWM has to sell the Eschweiler property to make Innovation Park go forward — it still owes more than $8 million to Milwaukee County.
If Mandel, one of the region's largest residential developers, can't make it work without razing at least some of the buildings, it's unlikely anyone else can. But if demolition isn't allowed, then Innovation Park itself is threatened.
That makes the Mandel project and Gee's Forestry Center project "a symbiotic relationship," Lindberg said.
"The synergy of these two projects coming together makes a lot of sense," Lindberg said. "And the greater project, Innovation Park, is so important not just to Wauwatosa but to the future of the whole region.
"We need a lot of people to walk through those doors right now, not to walk by them. It's so important to bring these jobs, clean jobs, interesting jobs.
"What we need is those builders and inventors — and we call those people engineers. And the school project is all about that, head and hands, project-based education.
"If we're truly committed to creating the inventors of tomorrow and keeping them here, that doesn't start after 12th grade.
"This is the geographic center of the Milwaukee 7 region," Lindberg said. "This is the big idea we're talking about. This is the big opportunity. It's going to take support that is truly heroic.
"How are we going to seize this opportunity for our children and their children and their grandchildren?
"If we're going to have an economy of the 21st Century, we all need to run toward this."