Waukesha County Executive committee favors taking down old HHS building

Published on: 1/28/2014

More than 100 years old and without a user, all signs point to the county's former Health and Human Services Building being demolished.

"If you start thinking about liability, if you start thinking about those of us that have toured that building it's time to move on," Supervisor David Swan said at the Waukesha County Executive Committee meeting on Jan. 20. "I think it's best for the taxpayers."

The committee thought so as well, as it unanimously approved a resolution that if there are no bidders to purchase and move the old building on the Waukesha County administrative campus in six months, administration would bring forth a capital project to tear down the building.

The resolution was voted on by the Waukesha County Board at its meeting on Tuesday night. But the proposal wouldn't fully go through until it gets 2015 budget approval later this year.

According to a resolution crafted by Department of Public Works Director Allison Bussler, the original structure has significant structural deficiencies and corrosion, and asbestos.

The cost to update the air handling units, electrical and plumbing infrastructures and interior finishes is more than $24 million. And in 2014, the property insurance will cost the county $11,300 plus an additional $4,670 vacancy surcharge to continue the current property insurance coverage.

Meanwhile, the cost to take down the building and address the land improvements after demolition is estimated at $3.3 million.

"We're trying to reduce the costs to the taxpayer," Chairman Paul Decker said. "We're at a point where we need to do something."

Meant for expansion

Bussler said the property was acquired by the county in the 1970s as part of a larger land purchase for the expansion of future county operations. The building opened in 1911 as the Moor Mud Baths Resort.

"We purchased that land, the golf course (Moor Downs) and the land where the HHS building is with the intent that this would be the county campus and looking to future years and future generations to preserve that land so we could have an efficient campus with buildings located near one another," Bussler said.

The building, which has had multiple users over the years, was rehabbed in 1996 when the county invested nearly $1.3 million with the intent that it would last 10 to 15 years.

"It has been our plan for the last 17 years to vacate that building," said Bussler, adding the space could be used as additional parking for the new HHS building that opened last fall. "That's how long it was supposed to last, so we've disinvested.

"We've kept up with some basic maintenance but not long-term maintenance that we do for our other buildings."

A landmark site

The building is on the national and state registration of historic places as well as a local landmark.

Dale Shaver, director of the Parks, Recreation and Land Use, said there is no impact with the national registry because the county doesn't receive any federal money to maintain the building.

"There is no interaction between Waukesha County and the federal government unit," Shaver said. "So our process, assuming the county board would act favorably to the resolution, soon after we would send an official notice to the state historical society and the City of Waukesha Landmarks Commission."

Bussler said "most of the time it goes through. Usually there's nothing there stopping it."

Looking at preservation

Mary Emery of the Waukesha Preservation Alliance and Waukesha County Board Supervisor Kathleen Cummings spoke in support of saving the building.

Cummings, who is also a member of the city's Landmarks Commission, said she was told by city officials there was an interested private developer. Her attempt at amending the county's resolution at the committee meeting failed.

"I find it distressing the way it is going as a supervisor who supported the new HHS building," Cummings said. "I find it distressing that staff of this county has met with the (city's) community development director and flat out said they had no interest in looking at or considering the possibility of leasing."

Problems with a sale

Bussler, however, said another developer coming to that site would be problematic.

"That land was purchased for county operations for the purpose of expansion," Bussler said. "Not a private entity and that $24 million figure does not include a parking ramp. We are taking up all of the parking right now (at the new HHS building). So if a new entity is going to come and have any visitors park there they'd have to build a parking structure. That would cost 10s of millions (of dollars)."

She added a recent study done by the Zimmerman Architectural Studios Inc. on renovating the Waukesha County Courthouse noted that if the county needs to expand the HHS building in 15 to 20 years, the old HHS property could be used.

"We don't want to have this very expensive project and leave it for future generations to solve," Bussler said.