Progress on downtown development languishes

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Thursday, May 1, 2008
— Tearing down an old building is perilous, especially when it’s attached on three sides to other buildings.

If you bash down a wall, will you inadvertently wreck your neighbor’s property?

That’s one reason the demolition of the old Jeffris Theater property in the 300 block of West Milwaukee Street is taking so long, said property owner Jim Grafft.

The project is even more complicated because the demolition is tied to the revival of the building next door, the old Monterey Hotel.

The hotel has stood empty for years, frustrating those who hate to see a beautiful structure waste away and those who think it could be a major asset in downtown revitalization.

Grafft plans to convert the hotel into apartments, and those plans involve tying the hotel to the Jeffris building.

A portion of the demolished building will become a parking lot.

Last fall, the city threatened to step in and finish a demolition job more quickly. It issued a condemnation order, citing safety concerns.

The order still is in effect, said Jay Winzenz, director of administrative services for the city.

Winzenz said the city was interviewing contractors for the work when Grafft began an earnest effort to complete the job. So rather than step in, the city stood back in hopes that Grafft would come through with a plan to redevelop both buildings, Winzenz said.

That’s what Grafft said he intends to do.

Grafft said he thinks the city backed off because it found out that it could get into trouble by tearing out walls with asbestos in them. But Winzenz said the city had gotten clearance from the DNR, and asbestos wasn’t an issue.

Workers still are tearing down parts of the building by hand. Three workers could be seen on site Wednesday.

The theater was built in 1923 and changed in the 1950s and 1990s. It was not built soundly, which further complicates the demolition, Grafft said. Problems arose as parts of the structure were exposed.

Grafft said he would have started the project five years earlier, but he had trouble getting cooperation with the owner of Jeffris Flats, the building abutting to the rear. An exposed stairway at the rear of the Flats was bolted to Grafft’s building, and Grafft could not move forward until that issue was resolved, he said.

The YWCA has since taken over that building, and the staircase issue is resolved.

YWCA Executive Director Kerri Parker said the YW hopes to work with the city and neighbors to make the downtown a pleasant and safe living environment for women and children.

The former rear of the theater will become a parking lot. But the façade facing Milwaukee Street will be improved, and a portion of the building behind the façade will remain, Grafft said. That building is destined to become part of Grafft’s hotel plans.

Grafft said one phase of the demolition should be done in a month or so, which will allow him to draw up plans to complete the revamping of the theater building.

“That’s what were waiting for at this point, and we’re trying to be patient,” Winzenz said.

The hotel’s old kitchen, a two-story structure at the rear of the hotel, also is scheduled for demolition. Grafft plans to rebuild those two stories and make a large deck on top of it and the theater building for hotel residents.

Grafft said he is waiting for approval of his plans from state and federal historic authorities. Approval is needed so he can get tax credits for the project.

Grafft was reluctant to guess how long it would take before the hotel would be ready for tenants, but when pressed, he said it would be at least a year.

Rehab on hotel many months away

Jim Grafft’s plans for the Monterey Hotel include apartments with balconies and a large, L-shaped deck for residents.

Conceptual drawings in his office show a hotel that has been turned to good use while preserving its beauty.

Grafft was so concerned that apartment residents have a pleasant view that he bought an old house on nearby Dodge Street. He’s having the house rehabbed, he said, to keep it from becoming an eyesore.

And yet the rehabilitation of the hotel itself is many months away, something Grafft is keenly aware of.

“I’ve known what I wanted to do with this place for many a year,” Grafft said. “But without tearing down the (next-door) theater, nothing can start.”

One way to deal with such frustration is humor.

As he walked from the house back toward the hotel Wednesday, he stooped down to pick up a dusty penny.

“See? It’s making money for me already,” he joked.

Last updated: 9:14 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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