Thursday, January 31, 2008

City mired in its own misconduct

Some East side residents are hot, hot, hot because the Historic Preservation Commission on Monday did not really re-open discussion about the Downer Ave. parking garage.

How does this get fixed when the city has done almost everything possible to ensure that people don't trust it?

But since most of city staff's wrong-doing came after the Common Council and mayor approved the project, it's not clear how much the Historic Preservation Commission can do at this point. It might be able to undo the amendments it probably had absolutely no authority to make to an already-approved plan in the first place, but would that be better or worse for the neighbors? This is not to blame the Commission for this mess. It is pretty clear that a persistent Peter Kovac wore the mayor's office down, and that city staffers sought to intervene in the project to help him out and to just make him go away. Who insisted on cheating to to get things done still isn't clear.

HPC member Sandra McSweeney, in a resolution that didn't pass, said that DCD staff called the illegally (probably) closed meetings of the subcommittee that considered the garage and that DCD even called Monday's HPC meeting. McSweeney sought to make a very public statement that this mess, indeed, ain't of HPC's making.

Meanwhile, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has gone on record stating its unhappiness with the city's processes in this matter. The National Trust is the country's largest non-profit preservation organization. From Royce Yeater, the Trust's Midwest Director:

The National Trust also must enter into the record its dissatisfaction with the actions of the City surrounding the review and approval of this development. The case of McCarthy et al v. City of Milwaukee and DAPL, LLC has highlighted the deficiencies of the process and casts doubt about whether or not the City is attempting to undermine the power and authority of the Historic Preservation Commission.

The City did not negotiate with the Wisconsin Historical Society and violated Wisconsin law by failing to do so. There also are serious questions about whether all of the transactions and the Historic Preservation Commission’s work concerning the development were in violation of the Open Meetings law. The Special Meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission on January 28th and the actions taken as a result offer an opportunity for corrective actions to be taken.

As a quasi-judicial body, there needs to be full and open disclosure of all actions of the Historic Preservation Commission and any Subcommittees appointed by the Commission. The process must be transparent and allow all property owners the due process guaranteed to them by the Constitution. The public must be allowed to be present, the voice of historic preservation advocates as well as the petitioners’ actively sought, and all meetings fully recorded.

In addition, we strongly encourage continued conversations between the City, Historic Preservation Commission, developer and Wisconsin Historical Society to reach an accommodation that can be supported by all. Chip Brown, III indicated in his January 16th letter to Judge Elsa Lamelas that he remains willing to negotiate the parking lot development plan with the City. Mr. Brown also mentioned that the developer indicated in his testimony on Friday, January 11th that he is willing to negotiate a smaller structure if his parking needs can be met elsewhere in the neighborhood.

The National Trust supports the Historic Preservation Commission in its mission to safeguard the city’s historic and cultural heritage. We all want the same thing for Milwaukee – economic vitality demonstrated through vibrant neighborhoods, and active commercial districts. As we at the National Trust know, this is most readily accomplished by respecting and utilizing the city’s historic resources. Circumventing the historic preservation laws enacted to protect historic resources undermines their potential and results in neglect and demolition. In the future, we look forward to continuing to support the Historic Preservation Commission and the City of Milwaukee in their efforts to revitalize the city through rehabilitation and reuse of its historic structures.

This isn't over by a long shot. Stay tuned.

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