Plans for Hillel Foundation building face neighbor opposition

Plans for a new Hillel Foundation-Milwaukee building near the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus hit a snag recently when a neighbor filed for interim historic preservation status for the two buildings on the site that the Milwaukee Jewish Federation purchased to build a new facility.

If such a status is recommended by the Historic Preservation Commission, the matter would be brought before the Common Council, which would then grant or deny permanent historic designation.

And that would make it very difficult to demolish the buildings, according to Ian Martin, a real estate lawyer with Godfrey & Kahn, Attorneys at Law, who is representing the federation in this matter.

The federation has searched for an appropriate site for the new facility for approximately two years, according to Betty Lieberman, director of capital building projects.

After seriously considering and then discarding as impractical the idea of renovating the existing Hillel facility, “The federation considered over a dozen possible locations and submitted offers to acquire six different sites. All of these efforts were ultimately unsuccessful,” according to a summary sent to the Historic Planning Commission.

The federation closed on the sale of the two adjacent properties, located at 2005 and 2009 E. Kenwood Blvd., at the southeast corner of Kenwood and Murray Aves. on Oct. 11. It plans to demolish the two houses and build a new structure designed to meet Hillel’s programming needs.

Stephen L. Chernof, co-chair of the Community Capital Campaign Steering Committee, noted that several other similar religion-related facilities are also located on Kenwood Blvd.

“The site is across the street from the UWM campus and is ideally located for Hillel,” he said in an interview.

Vitality and continuity

According to Hillel Foundation-Milwaukee president Jane Gellman, the need for a new building is acute. “The building that we have is totally inadequate for Hillel to function the way it functions today. If it ever met our needs before, it doesn’t now.”

First, there is a general lack of space, she said. “We cannot invite faculty members to our Shabbat dinners. For speakers, our rooms are comfortable for 15, not for 20. We need space for more than one program to go on at the same time because different students have different needs,” Gellman said.

The kitchen also is too small, she said. “There is no dishwasher, it’s not institutional-size and the need for the kitchen to be kosher makes extra space demands. It just totally does not meet the needs of the students today.”

Hillel leaders and the federation first tried to make the current building work. But, said Gellman, “The site is not big enough to build a bigger building. We have looked into that. We would prefer to the use the same site because we have neighbors who love us….”
Lack of adequate space is not only a physical and logistical problem, but also sends a problematic message about our community’s priorities, said Frederick R. Croen, chair of Hillel’s building committee.

“[The building] doesn’t represent the level of support that we would like to show for Jewish students in the Milwaukee area,” he said. “It is important as a means of supporting and sustaining the Jewish students.

“When students and parents come to visit UWM, we want to show them a supportive Jewish community in Milwaukee — a Jewish community that supports the students here. And that Milwaukee is a warm and welcoming place for Jewish students.”

Hillel is also an important key to keeping Judaism alive, he said. “We would like to have more Jewish students come here to assure the continued vitality of the Jewish community and to build Jewish continuity.”

‘Irreversible mistake’

But that should happen in another space, some people believe.
A neighbor, Robin Van Harpen, who lives in the same block as the federation properties, immediately filed an application with the Historic Preservation Commission to grant interim historic designation to the two houses, in an apparent attempt to prohibit the federation from building there.

On Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 25, the commission held its first hearing on the issue. There, Carlen Hatala, senior planner for the commission, presented a study report in which she argued that 2005 and 2009 E. Kenwood, two of the six houses on the block, seem to have been designed by the same architect and built by one developer and are historically significant as a group. She recommended in favor of interim historical preservation status.

None of the other houses have been nominated for such status.

Though she refused to be interviewed for this story, Van Harpen and some 12 supporters spoke to the commission in support of that recommendation.

Van Harpen said that the federation’s plan to tear down the two houses is “a terrible, terrible mistake.” The plan has been “short-sighted from the beginning,” and “would not be an improvement” to the neighborhood, she said.

She said she could not believe that Hillel has no other place to go; that the houses in question have been well-cared for owner-occupied dwellings for years; and tearing them down to build a modern building would be “an irreversible mistake.”

Alderman Michael D’Amato, who represents the neighborhood in the Common Council, said that while he is a neighbor of the current Hillel house and knows that Hillel is “a great neighbor” that “deserves and needs a new building,” he believes the properties at 2005 and 2009 W. Kenwood meet the two criteria for historic designation and he cannot support building Hillel’s new facility there.

A former owner of 2009 E. Kenwood, which has been occupied by UWM students since he moved out last year, said that he spent two summers painting, wallpapering and improving the interior of the house.

Kay Baldwin, who said she is a 35 year resident of the area, said for the last five or six years she has been working with a group to preserve and protect the neighborhood’s housing stock. There are five neighborhood associations, she said, that have the goal of designating the area as a historic district.

Chernof, speaking as an attorney for the federation as well as steering committee co-chair, requested and was granted a recess until Nov. 13 in order to have sufficient time to study the report, which was made available to the federation just one day prior to the hearing.

At the next hearing, the federation is expected to present its case against historic preservation status for its new properties.

Martin said that he expects that interim historic designation will be granted or denied at the end of the next hearing on Monday, Nov. 13, but that whether it is granted by the Historic Preservation Comission or not, an appeal of the decision to the Common Council is possible.