The Mandel Group's request for $2.5 million in public money to construct a 192-unit apartment complex around the Eschweiler buildings involved presentations and a debate lasting three hours last week.
The Budget and Finance Committee will discuss it again Oct. 8.
Nothing that happens at Innovation Campus has been easy, those involved agree. Historic preservation, habitat protection, high-tech development, complex funding and a nascent school are not even all of it.
While 19 people spoke in favor of city funding for the project, and nobody spoke against it, Alderman Peter Donegan did ask questions of the developer and the city. Similar questions may arise again next week.
The $2.5 million has been earmarked to build underground parking for the buildings' residents, thereby meeting a goal of preserving green space. It is possible that green space would add to the butterfly habitat that wraps around the site.
The city would be paid back over a period of years as the site gains value and the property taxes on it rise. Only after the city is paid back would the added taxation be paid out to other taxing bodies, such as the school district, the county, the state and Milwaukee Area Technical College.
The $2.5 million would be part of a larger tax-incremental-financing district that is paying for the construction of Discovery Parkway, parking for ABB and other things, adding millions to the tax base and paying the city off for its costs in 17 years, city Finance Director John Ruggini said.
Additionally, the Mandel proposal, if it goes forward, would save at least one, and possibly all four of the Eschweiler buildings. If the Forest Exploration Center attracts sufficient funding to stabilize the buildings, it will operate its University Lab School in them, and all four will be preserved. If it is not successful within a year after groundbreaking on the Mandel apartments, only the administration building would be preserved.
"We're at the point where I think everything that can be known about this is known, and it's time for us to move forward," said Alderman Dennis McBride, who has been deeply involved in issues related to the Eschweilers.
"If we say right now that we're not going to fund any of this, the buildings are going to come down," he said. "This is the last rodeo for these buildings."
Wanting to know more
Donegan said that, for him, not all the questions have been answered. He said he had no opinion on the outcome yet.
If the $2.5 million wasn't provided to the Mandel project, the TIF would close two years earlier, Ruggini said, in response to a Donegan question. Closing the TIF earlier would mean the added value to that point would be $2.8 million per year to the various taxing districts.
"That's our cost, $2.8 million 15 years from now," Donegan said. "It will be revenue denied the school district; us, the city; et cetera. That's our cost."
To a similar argument that recovering city costs before paying the other taxing districts hurts those other districts, Ruggini pointed out that the additional value wouldn't have been created without the city investment, hence the other taxing districts would have been no better off.
Fear of an injunction
At the same time, any attempt to raze an Eschweiler would likely draw an injunction from the Wisconsin Historical Society, stopping demolition, McBride said. This could prove problematic for the Mandel Group, if the Forest Exploration Center doesn't meet its financial goals and the developer's Plan B — taking down three of the buildings — takes effect.
Mandel's Philip Aiello said that, if the funding is approved, his next step would be to contact the society about the possibility of having to demolish three of the buildings.
"We would not advance our design and development until we were comfortable with the risk associated with the Wisconsin Historical Society," Aiello said.
"If we turn down the TIF, what would be your next step?" Donegan asked.
"We would have to evaluate whether or not we would want to be part of the development at that point," Aiello said.
Similarly, if Plan B — taking down three buildings — is not acceptable to the society, even if the TIF funding is granted, "we would have to evaluate whether or not we want to spend any more time on the development," waiting to see if the Forest Exploration Center can raise sufficient funds to save all three buildings, said Barry Mandel, president of the development company.
"We went through a very, very difficult process in Wauwatosa," he said. The rigor applied by the Wauwatosa Historic Preservation Commission gives him confidence in approaching the Wisconsin Historical Society.
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