As Anniston debates the merits, fiscally and logically, of replacing its city hall, it can look northward to Milwaukee and say, “Glad it’s you and not us.”
In demographics, size and location, the two cities couldn’t be more dissimilar. But Milwaukee, like Anniston, faces a potentially game-changing decision over its city hall — which, according to The New York Times, is slowly sinking into the Wisconsin soil.
Engineers say the 1890s-era Milwaukee building was built on wooden support pilings that are deteriorating. One corner of the building has dropped more than 2 inches in the last three decades. (The Times describes the building’s subbasement as being 41,000 tons of bricks resting on century-old wood.) One way or another, Milwaukee is looking at a big renovation bill or the cost of a total rebuild.
Problem is, Milwaukee’s City Hall is a Wisconsin landmark built in German Renaissance Revival architecture and home to a 400-foot clock tower. Eight years ago, the city spent $76 million to restore its exterior. Now, more money is needed. Politicians and voters there wonder: Is the cost worth it?
Milwaukee’s details aren’t similar to Anniston’s, but the base question remains: Should our city take on as much as $1 million in loan debt if it buys and moves into the mostly vacant Watermark Tower?
Today, the answer remains unclear. Anniston’s existing City Hall on Gurnee Avenue is a non-descript, 1940s-era building that, to put it mildly, has outlived its usefulness. Anniston can do better. Nevertheless, we need to hear more from Mayor Vaughn Stewart and City Manager Brian Johnson about the fine print of the city’s financial risk, which we assume would be severe, and the other existing options.
The Star’s editorial board solidly supports historic preservation, particularly if the reward outweighs the risks. Our support of the renovations to Watermark Tower — which sat for years as a scorched shell following a 2003 fire — was based on the belief that the 11-story building that opened in 1927 is crucial to the city’s downtown development. We still feel that way.
However, in the days since Johnson gave The Star a tour of the tower’s empty floors, our thoughts have continually returned to a simple, non-emotional, non-preservationist thought: Anniston should do this only if the chances of financial disaster are slim.
If that’s not the case, Johnson, Stewart and the City Council should look for other solutions to Anniston’s City Hall quandary.