Op-Ed | December 8, 2010

A creative solution to save historic buildings

Published in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Proponents of a new Marriott Hotel project on E. Wisconsin Ave. argue that the only thing standing in the new hotel's way are a handful of underused historic buildings, but, in fact, there is much more at stake. All five of the buildings in question have been locally designated as historic by the Milwaukee Common Council, have been federally designated for National Register listing by the National Park Service and are located in a National Register Historic District.

If demolition of these buildings is allowed to go forward, Milwaukee would - in effect - obliterate its own preservation ordinance, rendering the city's existing stock of historic structures unprotected and subject to the whims of any building owner. For a city like Milwaukee, whose rich and storied cultural heritage is reflected in its hundreds of historic buildings, that is unacceptable.

Fortunately, there is a better option available - one that would welcome the hotel and its many economic development opportunities to downtown, while at the same time reinforcing the city's commitment to preserving its stock of historic buildings. Rather than demolishing the five buildings, the developer could incorporate them into the existing plan, a solution with a number of tangible benefits, including:

  • Creating more - and better-paying - construction jobs than a project that relies solely on new construction. Studies have shown that rehabilitation projects create the kind of good-paying, local jobs that Milwaukee needs now. In fact, every $50 million invested in a rehabilitation project results in about 820 jobs - a net increase of 30% over new construction.
  • Allowing the developer to qualify for millions of dollars in federal and state historic rehab tax credits, either as offsets to future income taxes or as equity. The 20% federal tax credit, plus the 5% state tax credit, would mean a significant reduction in overall project costs.
  • Helping to revitalize a key part of Milwaukee's historic downtown, similar to the economic development successes that have occurred in the 700 block of Milwaukee St., Cathedral Square and the Historic Third Ward.
  • Attracting heritage tourists to Milwaukee. Studies show that heritage tourists stay longer and spend more money than the average tourist, translating into a shot in the arm for the city's retail and service sectors.

The developer argues that while demolition is its first choice, it may be open to a "compromise" plan that would preserve only the facades of the buildings. This approach results in an ersatz, Disney-fied version of a historic district and is clearly in violation of the spirit of Milwaukee's preservation ordinances.

Rather than faux history, the developer can look to dozens of examples of historic hotels across the country that took full advantage of existing buildings in their communities. Milwaukee's own Iron Horse Hotel is a great example, while just a few miles west on I-94 the developers of the Clarke Hotel in Waukesha transformed four historic buildings into what has become a destination hotel in the middle of that community's historic area. Further proof that converting historic buildings into hotels is not only desirable but also economically beneficial is the fact that the J.W. Marriott Co. - the proposed developer of this project - transformed historic buildings into three of its most opulent hotels: The J.W. Marriott in Chicago, the Courtyard Pittsburgh Downtown and the Courtyard Marriott in Denver.

Historic places help to define a community, make a city unique and remind future generations of their community's past. The block that is under threat with this proposal is the last intact 19th-century commercial block in downtown Milwaukee. The buildings may not be picture-postcard quality, but they tell an important story about the city's past.

Rather than needlessly consigning them to the wrecking ball, we should work toward a creative solution that will bring jobs and economic vitality downtown while preserving the area's unique historic character.

David J. Brown is executive vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Dawn H. McCarthy is president of Milwaukee Preservation Alliance Inc.


The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded nonprofit organization, works to save America’s historic places.
SavingPlaces.org | @savingplaces

URGENT: Contact your Senators asking them to pass the Route 66 National Historic Trail Designation Act before 2019!

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