Revitalize Our Building Stock, Revitalize the Economy

For the same reason that many admire the Flatiron building in New York City, I had a special affinity for one of the original Jos. A. Schlitz taverns in Milwaukee. […]

For the same reason that many admire the Flatiron building in New York City, I had a special affinity for one of the original Jos. A. Schlitz taverns in Milwaukee. Some will review the enclosed photos and wonder how one could ever compare the two. But in a Midwestern city where radial streets hint at a once-bustling citywide streetcar network, oddly-angled intersections create a framework for a handful of extravagant, trapezoidal centerpieces like this original Schlitz gathering place.

Opportunity Profile

  • Two-story structure

  • Built in 1888

  • “Cream City Brick” exterior

  • Assessed at $161,500

  • Demolished in late January 2012

The surrounding Y-shaped intersection – a point of convergence for three major north-south thoroughfares in the city – housed a central neighborhood amenity during the building’s existence.  At some point during the structure’s 124-year tenure, the once-bustling watering hole became a community center.  Thus at various phases throughout its life, the Schlitz building continually served as a community staple.  But like so many other buildings along nostalgic crossroads in Milwaukee’s core, owner and community neglect brought the structure to a decrepit physical state.  Any party – owner or tenant – who might have taken a recent interest in the building was greeted by separations between lathe and brick, defunct electrical systems, and lamentable street appeal.

Connecting the Dots

This past week, a statewide gathering of real estate brokers and developers sparked an afternoon conversation around a simple statement postulated by a retailer: “How do we make give-back spaces more palatable?”  While visual interpretations of this statement by the minds in the room likely included the adaptive reuse of vacant big-box retail units, my mind landed on the Jos. A. Schlitz bar just a 10-minute ride away.  If few brokers and developers desire to manage a decade-old give-back space after a tenant moves on, what chances ever existed to market a challenging gem like the Schlitz building to this particular audience – the salesmen of our built environment?  Listening to continued energetic vocal inflections every time the phrases “new construction” or “high traffic counts” were verbalized led me to a renewed apprehension: the American real estate industry has become an engine so mechanized that it can rarely create a unique building product which caters to the majority of today’s retailers.  This industry engine is generally powered by dollars and cents, not by workforce development, environmental sustainability, development longevity, or civic engagement.  The brokers and developers in the room expressed continued concern for the slogging economy and its impact on their bottom line.  I wanted to somehow connect the dots between their needs and buildings like the Schlitz bar, which have been screaming for a salesman, a renovation crew, and an ounce or two of belief. 

Creating the Jobs

Emily Badger’s November 2011 article in Atlantic Cities highlights the nexus between rehabilitating existing residential buildings and creating jobs.  Badger cites 2009 data which illustrates that repairing existing residential buildings produces about 50 percent more jobs than building new ones.  How this information translates into the commercial and industrial markets is worth further dialogue.  If cities like Milwaukee wish to generate sustainable employment opportunities which are disconnected from the fluctuating new construction market, let us revitalize existing buildings and, in turn, revitalize the economy.  Let us create a strong employment arena whereby building envelopes can be fully refurbished, code compliant, and garner a bit more aesthetic appeal.  Locally, it seems we are investing more capital in the demolition process than we are in connecting our local workforce to the copious quantity of buildings in need of attention.  This imbalance puts our delicate urban fabric at stake.

At face value, the original Jos. A. Schlitz tavern – a building boasting a nationally-known name and endless marketing potential – represented the convergence of three active local commercial corridors.  Yet the now-demolished building also represented the convergence of tangible economic opportunities for Milwaukee: job creation, brokerage and development activity, environmental sustainability, and much more.  Had we invested more time over the last decade in devising a system to train and employ skilled labor for shoring up the envelopes of neglected buildings, our city could make area brokers – those salesmen of our built environment – trip over each other in pursuit of the next marketable opportunity.  Give-back spaces could suddenly regain a desirable position in any broker’s portfolio.

When I started blogging on Rooflines in January, I framed a rough list of 12 sites and structures that I felt represented opportunities for economic development, civic engagement, and neighborhood stability. To date, I've examined four of these structures and only two of them still stand. I struggle to discern exactly how this pattern of demolition-to-new-construction supports a sustainable, healthy city, or “progress,” for that matter.

Brokers must first be sold on a product before they can turn around and sell it.  If American society intends to thrive in the coming centuries, we must somehow reconfigure our real estate engine so that the value in our existing environs is clearly recognized.

First Image Source: Google Maps, Accessed February 15, 2012.

Second Image Source: Stephanie Allewalt.

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