Riverkeeper Challenges City, Developer on Fate of Eschweiler Buildings

Advocate for preservation urges city not to give in easily to suggestion that some of the historic buildings could be demolished.

The group that launched a successful grassroots campaign nearly 15 years ago to "Save the County Grounds" has now delivered a preemptive challenge to Wauwatosa to save the historic Eschweiler Buildings.

Cheryl Nenn of Milwaukee Riverkeeper wrote to the Wauwatosa Historic Preservation Commission before a meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday that it needs to stick to the city's long-term commitment to preserving the buildings.

The commission's agenda says only this: "Eschweiler Buildings Redevelopment Update – Initial discussion of proposed plans."

But it is presumed that representatives of Mandel Group, the developer that won the request for proposals for the Eschweiler Campus, will be present, as may those of the UWM Real Estate Foundation, which now owns the property.

In an April 25 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Mandel chief operating officer Robert Monnat told reporter Tom Daykin that the firm could not find an economically feasible way to rehabilitate and reconfigure the buildings to serve as apartments.

Monnat said in the article that because of the deteriorating condition of the buildings it might be that some of them would have to be torn down.

The Historic Preservation Commission could deny that permission, but the developer could appeal such a decision to the Wauwatosa Common Council.

Grounds being compromised to death, Nenn says

Nenn said in her letter and in an interview with Patch that the city should not rush to any conclusion based only on Mandel's assessment. She is calling for an independent analysis of the buildings' condition and estimated cost of renovation.

"We’ve all heard the expression 'death by a thousand cuts,'" Nenn wrote, "and I would add that the County Grounds are dying a death of a thousand compromises."

Nenn said that the very purpose of the division of what is now the UWM tract as an economic development zone a decade ago was to create a tax base to pay for preserving the Eschweilers and surrounding green space.

Language to that effect is incorporated into a master plan that was adopted for the area and in a tax incremental financing zone created by Wauwatosa in 2010 to support development of the tract.

"There was always a commitment on behalf of the City to preserve the Eschweiler buildings," Nenn said. "The Innovation Park area was sold to the community as a UWM engineering campus, which would also house some companies that were innovators in engineering and technology.

"Later, we learned that a portion of the County-owned property was also being considered for residential development and possibly commercial development unrelated to the campus.

"Still later, it was found out that UWM was proposing to sell off a portion of what used to be our public property outright to a private developer. The City accommodated this proposal allowing for new residential development ... as a compromise so that a developer would have funds to subsidize the huge expense of renovating the Eschweiler Buildings."

Nenn concluded that if any or all of the buildings end up being demolished, and new private apartment or condominium construction is allowed in their place, the city will have essentially participated in a sell-off of the public's property for private gain with no return in amenities.

She suggested that if any of the buildings must, in the end, be torn down because of longstanding neglect, then the footprint of total develoment on the Eschweiler Campus should be reduced accordingly.

A long struggle for preservation

Milwaukee Riverkeeper was founded in Wauwatosa in 1995 as the Friends of the Menomonee, later becoming Friends of Milwaukee's Rivers.

After then-County Executive Tom Ament proposed selling off the whole of the Northeast Quadrant of the County Grounds for development, the group launched its "Save the County Grounds" campaign.

Nenn was an early member and clearly recalls, she says, the focus on saving not only as much open space as possible but the Eschweiler Buildings as well – a promise incorporated in the "Kubala-Washatko Plan" for the area, which was adopted by the city.

Riverkeeper now acts as a watchdog and advocate for the entire Milwaukee-Menomonee-Kinnickinnic watershed, but a large focus remains on open spaces in Wauwatosa.

"I've been doing this job for 10 years," Nenn said, "and I think the County Grounds has always been the most contentious and difficult issue we've faced."


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