Waukesha County board rejects senior apartment plan for former Moor Mud Baths Resort site

Published on: 9/4/2015

For nearly two years, county officials have made it known they wanted to tear down the former Health and Human Services building — the one-time Moor Mud Baths Resort on the Waukesha County Courthouse campus.

Local preservationists have also made it known that they wanted this historic building to be repurposed and back on the tax rolls.

While the county board previously saved the building from the bulldozer, it appears the national, state and local landmark has reached the end of the line and will be razed.

The county board voted 15-8 on Tuesday, Aug. 25, to deny the only proposal that considered redeveloping the vacant building, which opened in 1911. Gorman & Company Inc. wanted to buy the building at 500 Riverview Ave. and turn it into a 40-unit apartment complex for seniors.

"Their vote certainly seems to move it closer to being taken down," said Allison Bussler, the county's department of public works director.

It's a discouraging development for Mary Emery, president of the Waukesha Preservation Alliance, who has led the effort to save the building. The county opened its new HHS facility in fall 2013.

"It's very frustrating," Emery said. "Gorman is a reputable developer who would have put in more than $9 million, and the development would have generated $46,000 in taxes each year."

It looked somewhat promising for Emery and her supporters after the county board decided last fall to remove $3.3 million from the county's five-year capital projects plan that would have been used for taking down the building in 2015.

The county board's decision in October 2014 went against the recommendation of every county committee and county staff members who wanted that money kept in the budget. A petition of more than 700 signatures from people who wanted the building saved played a factor in some board members voting to take the money out of the budget.

In February, the county board agreed to seek proposals to repurpose the building.

Lone proposal

Although the proposal was sent to many developers in the area and posted on a real estate website, Gorman & Company, which has brought new life to numerous historic homes and buildings across the area and country, was the only developer to submit a proposal to the county.

A county committee that reviewed Gorman's proposal in recent months called it "deficient in several areas," as it did not initially sufficiently address access, parking, how it fit with the county campus, tax credits and how the plan would preserve the historical character of the property.

While Gorman later addressed the concerns during an interview, the county still felt the developer was not up to par.

The committee said it "did not receive enough information from (Gorman) to evaluate how their proposal fit into the county's campus and surrounding neighborhood, what their definitive access plans were, how they would maintain the historic aspect of the building, what the total impact on parking would be, what the size/scope of the proposed property acquisition would be or even what the cost impact would be on the county to carry out their proposal."

Debating the process

Emery said that the proposal process, including the timeline, made it impossible for any developer to be successful. More developers didn't submit proposals because "they felt the county was not serious about selling the building," she said.

Bussler denied that claim. "It was a fair process," she said.

Bussler said one problem with Gorman's proposal is that it was willing to pay only $400,000 for the site. According to the committee's report, a third-party appraiser estimated the property's value at $1.3 million.

Bussler said it could cost $1.8 million to tear the building down. However, that figure is likely to change, Bussler said, because the county still has to do more research on intensive asbestos removal.

Ted Matkom, Gorman's Wisconsin market president, declined to comment on the proposal and the county's denial.

He deferred all comments to Emery.

Emery said she is confused as to why the board would reject a $400,000 offer and then "turn around and spend $1.8 million in tax dollars to take it down."

Emery said besides losing the local landmark, she is concerned about the ramifications for the rest of the designated site.

The former HHS building is part of an intact resort from the Springs Era that includes the Moor Downs Golf Course. Once the local landmark designation is rescinded — a requirement needed for taking the building down — the golf course will be unprotected, Emery said.

Up next

Bussler said the county wants to use the space for about 70 parking stalls. She has said the land was purchased years ago for county operations. The vacant land could also possibly be usedfor a relocation of the county's Huber corrections facility.

Multiple county board members have said that selling the old HHS building to a private developer would create "a hole" on the county campus.

County Executive Paul Farrow will likely now include funds in the proposed 2016 budget for the demolition to move forward. The item would then be sent to the county board for approval.