How can I support Waukesha County’s plan to preserve the history of the Moor Downs property while saving taxpayer dollars?
Contact Waukesha City Council members before their February 11 meeting. Tell them you support the county’s plan for accessible preservation of the Moor Downs property.
Contact information for the City Mayor and other elected officials is available at waukesha-wi.gov/158/Common-Council.
What is the dispute over the former Waukesha County Health and Human Services Building?
Waukesha County is obligated to maintain its former Health and Human Services (HHS) building and its grounds as a local historic landmark. The building, which is a vacant shell that contains no significant historic architecture, needs a new roof at a cost of nearly $1 million. If the City Council does not grant the county a demolition permit, taxpayers will need to fund the new roof, in addition to nearly $500,000 that have already been spent to maintain the structure. Each dollar spent maintaining the building is diverted from county priorities, including public safety projects and road maintenance.
How did Waukesha County acquire this property from the city?
In 1971, the City of Waukesha approached Waukesha County Supervisors to ask them to purchase the Moor Downs property for county use and future government expansion. The city was concerned that a proposed development on the land would tax city resources because increased infrastructure and city services that would be required to support the development. Waukesha County agreed to purchase the land, and to plan and operate a golf course on the property until it was needed for future county expansion. The landmark designation could bar the county from using the land for its agreed upon use. Read the Waukesha Mayor's Affidavit here.
How did the historic designation become an issue?
In 2001, the City of Waukesha Landmarks Commission unilaterally designated the former HHS building and its entire grounds a local historic landmark. This designation subjects the property to local regulations controlling the maintenance and existence of the structures, which include the former HHS building, Moor Downs Golf Course, the Moor Downs Clubhouse and the former springhouse
Even though historians agree that nothing inside of historic architectural significance remains inside the former HHS structure, the designation means the county is required to spend potentially millions of dollars to maintain the unsafe and aging vacant building. Two previous attempts to sell the building have failed.
This historic designation has hamstrung Waukesha County as it tries to make the best decision for taxpayers and the future of other county-owned properties. Although Waukesha County undertook two separate processes to find a buyer willing to preserve the landmark, no offers that met condition of sale requirements were received. The landmark designation could bar the county from using the land for the use agreed upon with the City in 1971,as outlined in an affidavit from the then Mayor of the City of Waukesha.
Is maintaining the vacant former HHS building the only way to preserve Waukesha County’s history
No. Nothing historic remains in the vacant building that used to house the Waukesha County Health and Human Services Building. If you were to step inside the building today, it would look no different than any other office building with fluorescent lighting, drop ceilings, drywall and cubicles. That’s because after the Moor Mud Baths closed in 1961, the building underwent many modern renovations to be repurposed as a seminary in 1962 and then as an office building in 1972. By the time the building was vacated in 2014, it had undergone 50 years of renovations to allow it to accommodate students, classrooms, and offices.
Waukesha County has been able to reach an agreement with the Wisconsin Historical Society that will preserve and perpetuate the property’s historical narrative, in accordance with state and federal requirements, while allowing for demolition of the structure. The agreement details the steps the County will take to document the history of the former resort through a website, a commemorative marker, photographs and a historical display.
Is the rest of the property considered historic?
The Landmarks Commission designated the entire Moor Downs property as a “relatively intact example of a resort from Springs Era.” However, the footprint of the property and all of its structures were significantly altered before the historic designation was given.
What has Waukesha County done to preserve the history of the Moor Downs property?
Waukesha County believes in preserving significant representations of Waukesha’s History.
Currently, the county has reached agreement with the Wisconsin Historical Society to preserve and perpetuate the history of the Moor Downs property while allowing for demolition of the structure. The agreement includes hiring a historian that specializes in historical photography to document the remaining structures in imagery and writing. The county will create and maintain a website to that utilizes that information to memorialize the property. The county will also erect a historical marker that adheres to National Historical Marker guidelines. This information is outlined in the agreement the county has made with the Wisconsin Historical Society.
That agreement is in addition to past preservation efforts, which include investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to preserve Moor Downs Golf Course as a functioning public course, the reconstruction of the Moor Downs Clubhouse building on the golf course, and donations of significant items to the Waukesha Historical Society.
Has Waukesha County tried to rescind the historic landmark designation?
When the Landmarks Commission held a public hearing on the historic landmark designation on January 31, 2001 Waukesha County provided immediate public testimony against the actions of the unelected commission. The designation was passed in spite of the county’s position.
Once the building was vacated in October 2013, Waukesha County undertook two separate efforts to sell the building. When those efforts were unsuccessful, consistent with City codes, the County approached the City to rescind the landmark designation and allow the County to proceed with taking down the building because of its cost and safety liabilities.
The Landmarks Commission, desiring to preserve the history associated with this building, denied the County’s request stating the County has not acted in good faith to find a buyer for the property.
Why is the building vacant?
Waukesha County used the building to house its Department of Health and Humans Services from 1972 until 2013. The hundred-year-old building could no longer accommodate the security or technological needs of a modern office environment and the cost to renovate the building to meet those needs would cost an estimated $24 million. It has remained empty since HHS staff moved to a new building in 2013.
How much has Waukesha County spent maintaining the empty building?
The cost to maintain the vacant former Waukesha County Health and Human Services (HHS) building is currently $17,500 annually. So far, Waukesha County has spent nearly half a million dollars to maintain the building. However, imminent roof replacement is necessary for the building, which will cost $921,450 dollars, and will add an additional $10,000 in annual roof maintenance costs. The total current value of the former HHS building is only $1.3 million.
Are taxes being diverted from other projects in order to pay to maintain a vacant building?
Yes. The Waukesha County Department of Public Works maintains the vacant building. This department is also responsible for the maintenance, improvement, and construction of Waukesha County highways, buildings, and the airport. Every dollar that is spent on the vacant building is a dollar not available for public safety improvements to our roads and infrastructure.
Why does maintenance cost so much?
The historical landmark designation obligates taxpayers to fund all maintenance and repairs, which currently include ongoing costs such as insurance, and maintenance staff wages, in addition to the cost of all imminent building needs, such as roof and window replacement. This does not include the cost to mitigate security provided by the Sheriff’s Department to respond to vandalism, trespassing, and other criminal activities documented at the building site.
If the cost of maintenance is so much, why not just sell the building?
Waukesha County has undertaken two separate processes to find a buyer willing to preserve the building, but received no viable offers.
In 2014, the County hired a broker to market the property for lease or sale of the building. In addition to listing the property on multiple websites, the broker reached out by both mail and phone to over 850 different companies from various fields who might be interested in the property. No offer to purchase was received.
In 2015, the County released a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the sale and development of the vacant former HHS building. The County received only a single offer to purchase the property. The developer offered a purchase price of $400,000 for the property valued at $1.3 million. In addition to not meeting the market value of the property, this offer did not meet RFP condition of sale requirements, including parking and access requirements, and other conditions that would have exposed taxpayers to additional un-necessary cost. Inability to meet condition of sale requirements rendered the value of the purchase price at $0, with the potential of incurring additional costs to taxpayers.
Can the building be renovated?
A 2013 Building Assessment Report concluded renovation of the building would cost $24 million; an appraisal of the property placed the market value at $1.3 million. It was deemed by the County that it would not be fiscally responsible to renovate the building, even for temporary use.
Is the building safe to use right now?
The vacant former HHS property has several associated safety hazards. The building is full of hazardous building materials, including lead paint and asbestos. Asbestos remediation alone is estimated to cost $800,000.
Additionally, the vacant building has attracted illegal activity, including trespassing, vandalism and theft attempts.
Does Waukesha County want to demolish this building so that it can build a parking lot?
No. The county has no immediate plans for this space, but wants to raze the building due to safety concerns, the un-necessary cost to taxpayers, the previous investment by taxpayers into a brand new state of the art Health and Human Service building, and the preservation of public golf at Moor Downs Golf Course.
What would happen to the property if the HHS building is demolished?
There are no current plans at the time for the property. However, the county has been actively moving its assets onto land near the government center in order to consolidate operations for cost savings and place land back on the tax roll.
One option is to move the Waukesha County Huber Facility to the property in order to free up that land for private redevelopment.
Does this mean the county is going to develop property adjacent to the Courthouse campus?
At some point, it is likely that Waukesha County will need to utilize the property it owns for future development of a consolidated government center. Waukesha County has been growing at a steady pace for decades. When the courthouse complex was built in 1959, the county population was 158,500 people. Today Waukesha County is home to over 400,000 residents, and still growing.
What happens if the Waukesha City Council denies the county the ability to demolish the building?
That decision would expose the City of Waukesha to potential litigation from Waukesha County. It would jeopardize the future ability of county operations to provide necessary services, and would force the county to acquire new land for future expansion.
What does this mean for the people who live near the Moor Downs property?
If the county is unable to redevelop the land currently occupied by the old HHS building, when future county operations are consolidated onto the county campus the county will be forced to consider the land immediately abutting county property for that future development. This could mean the loss of homes or the development of other adjacent county land.
Could this designation have a negative impact on the Golf Course?
If Waukesha County is unable to enforce its right to demolish the former HHS building it may be forced to put the entire historic designated property up for sale, which includes Moor Downs Golf Course. The new owner of the property may not choose to continue golf course operations.
What has the City of Waukesha done when the Landmarks Commission designated one of its own properties as a historic landmark?
When the City Council was recently faced with designating one of its own properties as historic the Common Council voted no, 10-2. The Landmarks Commission recommended that the Les Paul Performance Center band shell in Cutler Park become a city landmark. Waukesha County is asking the city to be consistent and not saddle Waukesha County taxpayers with a responsibility it chose to avoid. You can read more here.
How has the City of Waukesha reacted when another taxing jurisdiction tried to impose significant costs onto its taxpayers?
The City of Waukesha recently filed a lawsuit suing New Berlin after they rejected building a pumping station and water storage tanks on the New Berlin side of Minooka Park.
You can read more here.
What is the Landmarks Commission, and what is its oversight?
The City of Waukesha Landmarks Commission is an unelected board of seven Commissioners that aims to preserve historic structures in the City of Waukesha. Members are appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the City Council.