Marriott project pits economy against history

A Milwaukee-based developer is keen on building a new Marriott hotel at a historic 19th century building. Photo credit: Brittany McGrail / brittany.mcgrail@marquette.edu

A political tug-of-war is brewing between historical preservationists and economic developers over a pair of buildings located near the intersection of Milwaukee and Wisconsin avenues.

Milwaukee-based Jackson Street Management has filed preliminary plans with the City’s Historic Preservation Commission to build a 10-story Marriott hotel at 625 N. Milwaukee St., where two mid-19th century buildings are currently located.

Evan Zeppos, a spokesperson for Wave Development LLC, one of the developers involved with the project, said building the new hotel would supply downtown Milwaukee with the economic investment it desperately needs.

The Marriott project would cost an estimated $50 million, create between 175 and 200 full-time jobs at the hotel itself, and require about 400 construction workers to build, Zeppos said.

But Ald. Robert Bauman, whose 4th district includes the two buildings, strongly opposes any plans to raze these nearly century-and-a-half-old properties. The most ideal plan would be to renovate the buildings, thereby keeping Milwaukee’s history intact, he said.

“I don’t want to destroy our valuable historical assets,” Bauman said.

Zeppos, however, questions the historical value of these buildings.

“There is a difference between old and historical,” he said.

Less than 10 percent of the building’s original exterior — the part experts consider historical — remains, Zeppos said. The remaining 90 percent has been bricked over or is in disrepair.

“These buildings have been vacant for many, many years,” Zeppos said. “They are full of graffiti and broken windows.”

According to Zeppos, these large buildings have only two tenants, a bar and a used book store, and are producing less than $100,000 per year in tax revenue, compared to an estimated $2.26 million the Marriott would produce.

Bauman said there are four other proposed hotel plans for downtown Milwaukee. Two of them want to renovate historic buildings, and there is no guarantee the funding — which is coming solely from private investors — will come through.

“The nightmarish situation, of course, is that they tear down these buildings, and then the funding or plans fall through,” Bauman said.

Zeppos, however, rejected Bauman’s fear, saying that is not how major developers operate.

“You don’t tear down buildings unless you already have the funding,” he said.

The developers are appearing next Tuesday in front of the Historical Preservation Commission, which must approve the plan. Zeppos said these particular buildings are not yet designated as historical, but instead the area it is in is protected by the city.

Although Zeppos has full confidence the commission or the City Council will approve the plans, it is not a mortal lock. Alison Barnes, a professor of law at Marquette, said historically designated buildings typically have rights over developers, but nothing is certain.

Bauman said he fully supports the economic development of downtown Milwaukee, and there is always room for compromise with developers.