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Milwaukee asks court for sanctions against parking garage owners

The city of Milwaukee is seeking to raze a closed parking ramp at 601 W. Wells St. The building has been vacant for several years due to structural issues. (Staff photos by Kevin Harnack)

Years of ignoring city deadlines finally could prove costly for the owners of an abandoned downtown Milwaukee parking garage.

The city on Friday asked a Milwaukee County Circuit judge to assess a $10,000 sanction against Texas-based TTOW Properties LLC, which owns a parking garage at 601 W. Wells St. that the city issued a raze order for in November 2011.

In February, Milwaukee officials classified the building as a danger to public health and safety.

Since 2010, TTOW Properties has missed numerous city deadlines; initially to bring the building up to code and later, to raze it. The property owners also are delinquent on city taxes for the site.

At Friday’s hearing, the city put forth a motion for the $10,000 sanction, which they would like assessed even if the property owners bring the building up to code or raze it. The city also requested the court approve a sanction of $2,000 a day until TTOW complies with previous stipulations, including buying bonds, getting insurance, obtaining a permit and finalizing a demolition contract for the structure.

Judge Kevin Martens is set to rule on the requested sanctions June 20.

The request for sanctions signals a more aggressive approach from city officials, who, at a May 30 status hearing, had agreed to work with the contractor on complying with the city’s orders. Since that time, Assistant City Attorney Nick DeSiato said, the property owner missed a conference call on the matter.

“If you’re in contempt, it’s a little bit different than when you’re working to strike a deal,” DeSiato said. “Inherently, that changes the dynamics.”

Adding to the city’s concerns, according to a Department of Neighborhood Services affidavit filed with the sanction request, the company’s future plans for the site also ignore city requirements. According to court records, TTOW said it intends to use the property as a parking lot “at the least,” and thus doesn’t see the need to grade the ground for landscaping.

But part of the city’s code on razing property includes a requirement that property on which a structure has been razed must be covered by approved planted ground cover, such as grass or shrubs. Further, since the property is downtown, it must meet the landscaping standards of downtown surface parking lots, which are even more specific as to planting and landscaping requirements.

A sign attached to a chain link fence warns passersby of falling debris from a closed parking ramp at 601 W. Wells St. in Milwaukee.

Meeting city requirements for zoning might not be the only thing that’s holding up compliance. TTOW’s attorney Chris Strohbehn said the company’s lawsuit against its insurance company also might be slowing the process.

TTOW sued its insurer, Travelers Lloyds Insurance Co., when the insurer declined to cover the cost of repairs that would have allowed the structure to reopen for parking. These repairs would have cost almost $11 million, according to court documents; more than twice what TTOW paid to buy the property in 2008.

Now that the raze order is being pushed, Strohbehn said that lawsuit will change in nature. The property owners no longer seek to repair the property, he said, but they’ve still lost revenue since the garage has been closed and they’re trying to recover it.

The city’s estimated cost for demolition was just shy of $1 million. The initial contract proposed by TTOW put the cost at about $430,000, but that contract did not meet city standards, said Ron Roberts of DNS.

The city wasn’t willing to spend tax money, Roberts said, to demolish a structure when its owner has the means to do so.

“We’ve been very aggressive in this case,” DeSiato said. “We have a responsibility to look after taxpayers.”

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