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Eschweiler residential development is well worth an investment by the city

7/10/2013 - In June the Wauwatosa Historical Preservation Commission approved a plan by Mandel Group to do a residential development, including the historic Eschweiler buildings, on the UWM Innovation Campus near Swan Boulevard.

The residential buildings will comprise 192 excellent apartments and integrate the handsome and respected Eschweilers into a high-quality project. It is expected to draw professional people who will work on the campus, a place where industry and higher education merge to stimulate the economy.

The residential project is a key element of Innovation Campus. The HPC has seen to it that the new residential buildings have outstanding architecture that not only complement the Eschweilers, but are very attractive, modern buildings that do justice to their prominent position on a high hill that affords a magnificent view of the Milwaukee skyline.

The approval of Mandel's project came after a series of reviews at HPC meetings, some of them including public hearings, which spanned about 11/2 years. There was disappointment expressed after Mandel made a determination that because of unanticipated high costs of refurbishment, three of the four Eschweilers could not be saved for use as apartment buildings. The financial realities could not be ignored, however, especially after they were confirmed by independent analysis, but Mandel had the patience to develop an acceptable plan.

Mandel's plan allows for two possibilities. The primary plan is for the Forestry Exploration Center to occupy the four Eschweiler buildings with a charter school specializing in forestry and ecology. The FEC would bear all expenses of refurbishing the buildings, built in 1910, for their use.

In case the FEC is unable to raise the money, Mandel would revert to the secondary plan. Only the administration building, the largest of the Eschweilers, would be completely renovated. It would comprise offices, meeting rooms and recreation areas. Two other Eschweilers would be taken down except for a portion of the first stories, including the entry doorways, and they would become walled gardens. The fourth would be demolished. The walled gardens would be charming outdoor places where residents of the apartments and the rest of Innovation Campus could gather to socialize.

Either way, there is a shortfall of $2.5 million that Mandel cannot raise in ordinary financial markets. It is critical the city provide tax-incremental financing to cover it. This kind of TIF is common practice in many cities, including Wauwatosa. For example, the city just granted $2.1 million in TIF for the ABB building on the campus, an industrial building used for private enterprise, to help create a tax base estimated at $13 million. A $2.5 million TIF for Mandel's residential project would help build a tax base estimated at $20 million. It would generate about $450,000 a year in taxes and retire the TIF within six to eight years.

It also is critical that the TIF funding be approved within the next few months so construction can begin while the real estate markets are still favorable to apartments.

-By Charles Mitchell, a retired mechanical engineer and long-time Wauwatosa resident, is chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission.

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