By Tom Daykin of the Journal Sentinel
Dec. 13, 2010 7:53 p.m.

Milwaukee’s Historic Preservation Commission has just voted to grant permission for a developer to demolish downtown historic buildings to make way for a proposed $50 million Marriott Hotel–but only if the building facades are preserved, and blended into the new building.

Ald. Bob Bauman, a commission member, said his proposal was designed to give developer Jackson Street Management LLC flexibility to build the hotel, while preserving the exteriors of the historic structures.

The resolution’s wording called for neither granting nor denying construction approval, while giving the developer a chance to come back with revised plans.

That brought a request from Tom DeMuth, Jackson Street Management’s attorney, to revise the resolution’s wording, which he said put the developer “in limbo.”

DeMuth said after the meeting he didn’t yet know whether the developer could create a feasible construction plan that preserves the facades.

“We’ve got to talk,” he said.

DeMuth also said it isn’t clear if Jackson Street Management can appeal that unanimous commission decision to the Common Council. The developer would need 10 votes from the 15-member council to overturn the commission’s decision.

The commission’s ruling came after nearly two hours of testimony Monday night from both supporters and opponents of demolishing the 19th century buildings: a four-story structure at 625 N. Milwaukee St., and connected buildings with three to four stories at 627 N. Milwaukee St., 629-631 N. Milwaukee St., 327 E. Wisconsin Ave. and 319-323 E. Wisconsin Ave.

Preservationists said those buildings have historic and architectural value.

A report by city historic preservation officer Paul Jakubovich listed what he considers significant aspects to the buildings, including housing the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, Milwaukee’s first English-language Jewish newspaper, in the 1920s and ’30s; providing an excellent example of the Italianate design style from the post-Civil War period, and showcasing a second empire-style building.

“This is the last surviving block of its kind in the city of Milwaukee,” Jakubovich told the commissioners. He also said the buildings had not deteriorated beyond repair, and cited examples of other older Milwaukee buildings that have been successfully restored.

Other demolition opponents, including representatives from Historic Milwaukee and Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, said the Marriott should be built at another downtown site, or should be built using the existing historic buildings. They said there doesn’t need to be a trade-off between development and preservation.

Hotel supporters said the buildings, which are mostly empty except for a used book store and a nightclub, do not have significant historic value, and are in poor condition.

“There’s a difference between historic, and merely old,” said Steve Baas, director of governmental affairs at the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.

The development firm’s architect, Doug Nysse, of Kahler Slater Architects Inc., said the proposed hotel could not be feasibly created within the existing buildings.

Hotel supporters, including Mayor Tom Barrett’s Department of City Development, downtown business operators and business and labor groups. also cite the 200-room Marriott’s economic benefits: 350 to 450 construction jobs; estimated annual taxes of $2.26 million, and 175 to 200 full-time hotel jobs.

However, the city’s preservation ordinance doesn’t allow the commission to consider those economic issues.

Most of the hotel’s $50 million in financing would come from the EB-5 program, which provides residency visas to foreign citizens who invest in U.S. projects that create jobs. Jackson Street also would seek federal New Markets Tax Credits, which are provided for developments in Census tract areas with a significant number of lower-income residents.