Milwaukee Neighborhood Group Calls for Eminent Domain Use: (Wisconsin) Daily Reporter, 12/23/05

By Sean Ryan

A neighborhood group around the Hartung Quarry landfill wants the city of Milwaukee to unleash its eminent domain powers.

The city-owned landfill is completely surrounded by a classic suburban single-family neighborhood. The Hartung Park Neighborhood Association wants the city to convert the landfill into a public park, but first it wants the city to acquire and rip down the neighborhood’s five remaining apartment buildings, located on North 99th Street. It also wants to see a cul-de-sac of owner-occupied houses built in their place.

“We know there’s all this crap going on up there,” said Margaret Silkey, president of the roughly 45-member association. “We just want to keep the neighborhood a decent, viable place and not have it become a run-down area.”

The local alderman, Jim Bohl, is sponsoring a resolution to order the Department of City Development to plan for a tax incremental financing district to pay for the new park. The plan includes acquiring the five, four-family apartment buildings around the landfill and redeveloping the lots.

Although the resolution orders DCD to make a “good-faith effort” to do that without using eminent domain, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said he doesn’t want to touch the idea of acquiring the properties for redevelopment.

“It’s a dangerous road to go down,” he said. “I have not seen any member on the council wanting to tear down these homes except the alderman in the local area.”

Kelo ruling
The situation hits a nerve that the U.S. Supreme Court’s Kelo v. New London ruling left raw in 2005 when it said governments could use eminent domain to acquire property for economic development. It’s a case Barrett, Bohl, Silkey and Milwaukee County Supervisor Lynn De Bruin referenced when discussing Hartung.

Bohl said he’s got grassroots backup and that the neighborhood would be ready to pepper the mayor with calls and letters to gain his support. Silkey said she knows Barrett and said, “I can understand why Tom feels like that.”

“We’re going to have to develop some strategy to perhaps enlighten the mayor,” she said.

This looming conflict was news to three of the four property owners caught in the middle. Apparently nobody from the city or neighborhood told them about the discussion over whether or not their buildings should be torn down. Nonetheless, the three said the same thing when they heard the news: I’ll negotiate, but the price better be right.

“I’d be screaming and kicking if it wasn’t worthwhile,” said Dominic Ambroselli, a Milwaukee resident who owns one of the five apartments. “It’s totally a money thing. I could potentially love the plan if they could be in my favor as far as the price. Otherwise, it would be a terrible plan if I could do a lot better on the open market.”

Two of them said they bought the properties because they knew the landfill would turn into a park one day and increase the value of the buildings. Donald Janowski, a Brookfield resident who owns two of the buildings, bought his about 10 years ago, and Ambroselli said he waited 20 years for the city to build the park.

“I have to assume that it would be a good scenario for my property here,” Janowski said about the park. “I don’t know if the city of Milwaukee can afford it, but with all the taxes I pay them ...”

Unlikely scenario
De Bruin, who is working on the park plan with the city as chairwoman of the county Parks, Energy and Environment Committee, said she thought eminent domain was an unlikely prospect.

“The negative of that is those properties might not be gone, but one positive of it is that you won’t have to force people out of their homes,” she said.

Silkey said that, as an ex-realtor, she understands the issues at play but thinks the buildings should go for the greater good of the area. She said the buildings generate police calls, have garbage on the curb and attract an unsavory crowd of tenants.

“It’s a matter of taking away someone’s livelihood — which is the rent from those buildings — so that is a big issue,” she said. “The multifamilies will deter from the beauty and the use (of the park) because there is so much activity going on down in the corner. … It’ll spill over into the park, and people will use it for who knows what.”

Tom Holman, who owns an apartment across the street from Hartung Quarry, said he’s been trying to upgrade his tenants and recently booted one that was causing a lot of trouble. Janowski said he screens his tenants very closely but that the apartment between the two buildings he owns has some problems.

“I’m very cautious and very careful about who I rent to,” said Janowski, who spent $20,000 renovating his properties in recent years. “I try to rent to people that will be good for the neighborhood.”

The city’s Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee is scheduled to consider Bohl’s resolution on Jan. 10.

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