Sept. 13–For two years, a state law forced Milwaukee officials to sell vacant public schools to other "educational operators" — hampering possible commercial redevelopments.
Now, a couple months after that law lapsed, plans are proceeding to convert one former Milwaukee Public Schools building into a high-end hotel, and developments are brewing at three other MPS buildings.
Rick Wiegand plans to renovate the former Wisconsin Avenue School, 2708 W. Wisconsin Ave., into a 23-suite extended-stay hotel.
Wiegand's $15 million project includes buying the school for $100,000 and doing a $500,000 environmental cleanup, according to the new proposal. It is scheduled for a Tuesday review by the Common Council's Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee.
The hotel would include a fitness center, business center and a restaurant that would feature an outdoor beer garden, according to plans filed with the city. There also would be event space created from the building's auditorium.
It would be named Ambassador Suites, which Wiegand would operate in connection with his nearby Ambassador Hotel, 2308 W. Wisconsin Ave.
Ambassador Suites would provide a different product compared with the Ambassador Hotel, with a major focus on weddings and other events, Wiegand said.
The suites would be around 1,000 square feet, nearly triple the space of the Ambassador Hotel rooms, with full kitchens and other extended-stay features, he said.
The project also would help boost Wiegand's efforts to redevelop a neighboring former hospital complex south of W. Wells St., between N. 27th and N. 28th streets, into offices, street-level retail and other new uses.
Wiegand said plans to redevelop the buildings, formerly Milwaukee County's City Campus, have been hampered by uncertainty over the future of the Wisconsin Avenue School.
The three-story, 96,500-square-foot building was constructed in 1919. Wiegand's financing for the hotel project would likely include state and federal historic preservation tax credits.
Wiegand hopes to begin renovating the building in early 2018 and have Ambassador Suites open by May 2019.
It would be a major investment in a neighborhood where redevelopment efforts are led by Near West Partners Inc., a nonprofit group sponsored by Marquette University and other large employers.
The school closed in 2007. It is among five former schools the Department of City Development began marketing to developers in July.
The department began that effort immediately after a two-year state ban on selling the schools to commercial developers expired, said Martha Brown, deputy development commissioner.
That measure took effect as part of the state's 2015-'17 budget. It said vacant and underused MPS buildings could be sold only to other "educational operators."
That measure, supported by the Republican-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Scott Walker, benefited Milwaukee Parental Choice voucher schools — which compete with MPS.
The Legislature and Walker approved the sale mandate after MPS refused to sell surplus properties to voucher schools, such as St. Marcus Lutheran School.
City and MPS officials opposed that provision. They said it hampered efforts to redevelop empty buildings while also hurting the school district's ability to serve its students.
By the time the two-year mandate expired, city officials had purchase offers pending on two MPS buildings, Brown said.
California-based private charter school operator Rocketship Education would buy the former Carleton Elementary School, 4116 W. Silver Spring Drive, and Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church would buy the former Frederick Douglass School, 3409 N. 37th St. Neither sale has yet closed, Brown said.
Meanwhile, department officials are negotiating the possible sale of three other buildings, Brown said. They are:
* The former Phillis Wheatley Elementary School, 2442 N. 20th St., which could be converted to affordable apartments.
* The former 37th Street Elementary School, 1715 N. 37th St., which has multiple offers from affordable housing developers.
* The former Centro Del Nino Head Start building, 500 E. Center St., a historic bank building that would be redeveloped for neighborhood retail. The city Board of Zoning Appeals last year denied a special-use permitneeded for a military-style voucher school proposed for that building.
The other MPS property being marketed, an office building converted to Milwaukee School of Entrepreneurship, 6914 W. Appleton Ave., hasn't yet received any offers.
The interest in the schools shows the buildings are good redevelopment targets, Brown said.
Other former MPS buildings converted to affordable apartments include the former Jackie Robinson Middle School, 3245 N. 37th St., which opened in 2012 as the 68-unit Sherman Park Senior Living Community; the former Garfield Avenue Elementary School, 2215 N. 4th St., which is being converted into 30 units, and the former Fifth Street School, 2770 N. 5th St., which is being renovated into 48 senior apartments.
Meanwhile, plans have surfaced for redeveloping the former William McKinley School, 2001 W. Vliet St., into 40 apartments.
Tom Daykin can be reached at [email protected]