Hillel finds alternate site

By Andrea Waxman
of The Chronicle staff

The Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s plan to construct a new Hillel Foundation-Milwaukee building near the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee moved a step forward last Friday, April 13.

Late in the afternoon, the U.W. Board of Regents approved a proposal to sell the southeast portion of the parking lot behind the Helene Zelazo Center for the Performing Arts at 2419 East Kenwood Blvd. to the federation for the Hillel project.

According to Betty Lieberman, the federation’s director of capital building projects, the property is a 66 by 120 foot plot, bordering on Stowell Ave., just south of Kenwood Blvd. It is the size of a house lot and a half, she said, noting “to do programming effectively Hillel needs more than a single house lot.”

The regents approval came some six months after the federation’s initial plan to construct the building on Kenwood Ave. at Murray Ave. was blocked by neighbor Robin Van Harpen’s application for historic preservation designation for the two houses on the federation’s property.

Frederick R. Croen, the chair of Hillel’s building committee explained, “the federation, at the suggestion of Alderman [Michael] D’Amato, entered into negotiations with UWM regarding the acquisition of [the Zelazo Center property].

“We had a series of meetings to discuss and assess the feasibility of the lot for our purposes, as well as site engineering work.”

When the federation and the university reached agreement, Croen said, UWM needed to get the approval of the regents in order to proceed.
“This is a very positive development,” Croen said. But, he explained, there are three things that must happen before the building project can begin.

First, the state department of administration building commission, which has authority over the purchase, construction and sale of any state land, must approve the sale.

That vote was expected to take place at a building commission meeting scheduled for Wednesday, April 18, 11:30 a.m.

Sherwood Wilson, Ph.D., UWM’s vice chancellor for finance and administrative affairs, said, though he suspects the commission will have questions about why the university would sell part of a parking lot when it is so short of parking, he has answers and does not anticipate a problem getting approval.

“It is a significant advantage to the university to have the Hillel center located close to campus. It provides services to students of faith that we cannot provide and that helps with [student] recruiting and retention,” Wilson said.

After that vote, UWM must petition the city and the city must agree to vacate a public alley, to the south of the Zelazo Center parking lot. The alley will be moved north to just below the Zelazo Center, Croen said.
“In addition,” he said, “the federation will be obligated to reconfigure the remaining portion of the Zelazo Center parking lot so that it will be efficient and useful for the university.”

The proposed price for the property is $219,500 according to Croen and Wilson. And there will be significant costs associated with rebuilding the Zelazo Center parking lot, Croen said.

A good neighbor

D’Amato, alderman of Milwaukee’s third district, lives in the same block as both the current Hillel house and the planned Hillel building. He commended several of the parties involved for this apparent resolution of this issue.

“I think the university deserves credit for acting quickly on this and the Murray Hill Neighborhood Association [representing the neighbors of the federation’s 2005 and 2009 E. Kenwood Blvd. properties] was instrumental in saving the Kenwood houses and helping to think of new locations where Hillel could grow and expand.”

He said that the neighbors supported keeping Hillel in the neighborhood. “If there was one constant comment from the neighbors, it was that Hillel has been a very good neighbor and that they wanted to make sure it was able to stay in the neighborhood.

“In the end, I think we’ll have owner occupants in the Kenwood homes, as well as a new location for a beautiful new Hillel building to remain part of the community for years to come. I think this is going to work out great for all parties and I am very happy that we’ve been able to come to a mutually agreeable solution,” D’Amato said.

Mayor Tom Barrett agreed that the federation and Hillel have acted as good neighbors.

“I’m pleased with the progress so far on finding a property for the new Hillel building…. We feel confident that we will overcome any future issues that arise. I very much appreciate the flexibility of the federation in this matter. It has been very sensitive to the neighborhood concerns and that’s the sign of a good neighbor,” Barrett said.

Hillel’s president-elect John Mann said, “We are very excited about this piece of property and our ability to move forward on this project. It’s a great location for Hillel.”

Mann, who will take office in June, said that he expects this to be a one-year project. “I would hope we would have the project completed by the fall of 2008,” he said.