Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
By: Tom Daykin
Three apartment buildings, totaling 89 units, would be developed near St. Francis Borgia Catholic Church in Cedarburg under a proposal pending before the Common Council. The proposal includes removing the church’s former rectory from the city’s historic preservation district.(Photo: AG Architecture)
Cedarburg — In the mid-1980s, Cedarburg officials created a historic preservation district that covers dozens of 19th century buildings that now house shops, restaurants, a winery, bed and breakfast inns and other businesses.
Now, city officials are reviewing plans for a new apartment community that would be built on the historic district’s edge — while changing district borders in order to demolish an older building.
Supporters say the three proposed apartment buildings totaling 89 units would provide Cedarburg’s empty nesters with a new place to live and generate property tax revenue for the city and its school district. Opponents say the three-story buildings would be too tall and have too many apartments for the 3.5-acre site.
They also say the project would create a troubling precedent for changing the historic district’s boundaries.
“Once people see how you go about removing something from a historic district, I could see other developers using the same tactic,” said Tom Kubala, a city Landmarks Commission member.
The Landmarks Commission voted 4-1 to recommend that the building targeted for demolition remain within the historic district.
But the Plan Commission voted unanimously to recommend changing the district’s borders to remove the building, a 1920s-era bungalow that served as the rectory for St. Francis Borgia Catholic Church. The hilltop church, which overlooks downtown, would remain within the district.
“We didn’t feel there was any architectural merit to keeping (the former rectory),” said Mark Burgoyne, Plan Commission vice chairman.
The Common Council, at its Monday night meeting, will consider removing the building from the historic district. The council will consider two other measures: changing the city’s comprehensive land use plan to allow a taller development with more housing units at the site and rezoning the site for an apartment project.
HSI Properties LLC wants to develop the apartments near St. Francis Borgia, one of Cedarburg’s best-known historic buildings. The parish would sell the development site to HSI, but keep the 146-year-old church.
Two apartment buildings would be constructed behind the church, on the former parish school site between Washington Ave. and Hamilton Road. The former school would be demolished. Built in 1951, and replaced last year by a new school in the Town of Cedarburg, it is just outside the historic district.
A third apartment building would be across Hamilton Road from the church, on what is now a parking lot.
Each building would have around 30 apartments, with monthly rents of roughly $1,200 to $2,000, said Tony DeRosa, HSI executive vice president. The project would have both underground and surface lot parking.
If the $16 million to $18 million development obtains city approval, HSI would likely begin construction by early summer, with the 89 apartments completed by spring 2018, DeRosa said.
An online petition opposing the development, organized by neighborhood residents, has attracted support from more than 500 people, including some who don’t live in Cedarburg, said Aaron Schultz, who’s helping lead the effort.
Opponents say the proposed building heights of 44 feet are the equivalent of four-story structures, even though the apartment buildings would each have three levels. That’s out of character for the surrounding neighborhood of mainly two-story homes, according to the petition.
The city’s land use plan calls for high-density housing at the site, said Jon Censky, city planner. The proposed land use plan amendment would allow 35 additional units at the site, and for the buildings to be higher than 35 feet, he said.
Also, opponents are raising concerns about removing the former rectory from the historic district. The petition says the historic district is a big part of Cedarburg’s appeal to both residents and visitors, and that changing the district’s borders would create “lasting negative impacts.”
“If you take away one property like this, what would be next?” said neighborhood resident Bill Bujanovich.
Cedarburg’s longstanding preservation efforts help attract visitors to its downtown shops and other businesses, Bujanovich said.
“I think it’s just really important to recognize what has become the economic base of our community,” he said.
Those preservation efforts date to 1966.
That’s when St. Francis Borgia parish proposed demolishing its stone church, built in 1870, and developing a larger church for the growing congregation. Former Mayor E. Stephan Fischer successfully returned to office on a promise to block the demolition plans.
Mayor Fischer later prevented a similar fate for Wittenberg Mill, built in 1864 on Cedar Creek. Work began In 1972 to convert the mill into Cedar Creek Settlement, which now features Cedar Creek Winery, shops and restaurants.
By the time Fischer left office in 1982, several businesses had opened in preserved buildings. Downtown was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, with the city creating its historic preservation district in 1986.
The historic district is important, said Burgoyne, a longtime Plan Commission member. And including the rectory within the district perhaps made sense 30 years ago, he said.
But the building, last used as a child care center, is now vacant, Burgoyne said.
HSI would use the former rectory’s lot to provide parking for church members, DeRosa said. He said the building is in bad shape and it’s not financially feasible to renovate the property.
Kubala, of the Landmarks Commission, said the former rectory is still a valuable building for the historic district.
“The fact that the church and rectory go together is critical,” he said.