The Collins House at 704 E. Gorham St.- most of us remember it as the Collins House B&B – is in the process of being sold by the city to private owners. It is one of three city-owned houses sitting on city-owned land that is technically part of James Madison Park. Former Mayor Dave Cieslewicz seated a Surplus Property Disposal Committee to sell the three houses to private owners. The land beneath them would be leased to the new owners under long-term lease agreements.
Late last year the committee accepted a proposal for one of the houses (640 E. Gorham St.), but rejected proposals for the other two (646 and 704 E. Gorham). The committee then reissued RFPs for the two remaining houses. This time they got three proposals for each of them. In January the committee, on a split vote, accepted one proposal for each of the two remaining houses. The committee chose a proposal by Bob Klebba and David Waugh to reopen the Collins house as a B&B.
The committee’s selection is not final, however. The two selected proposals are currently going through a vetting process where they are being reviewed by several city committees – the Plan Commission (already voted 4-3 to recommend adoption of the Klebba/Waugh proposal), Landmarks Commission, Parks Commission, Board of Estimates, and finally the Common Council, in that order.
Expectations were that these commissions would quickly review, endorse, and move the proposals forward. In fact, that’s what has happened with the proposals for the first two houses, 640 and 646 E. Gorham St. But the Klebba/Waugh proposal for the 704 E. Gorham (the Collins House) has hit a few snags. Alder Bridget Maniaci, who sat on the Surplus Property Committee, and in whose district the Collins House is located, is campaigning against it, calling it “illegal.” She cites a zoning ordinance forbidding a competing B&B within 500 feet of the Lietch House (which recently reopened as the Livingston Inn), and also discomfort with the Klebba and Waugh’s proposed financial structure. Klebba and Waugh acknowledged in their proposal that a zoning code change may be necessary.
Maniaci had given higher scores to a competing proposal submitted by Barbara Fant, and she voted against acceptance of the Klebba/Waugh proposal (the motion to accept the Klebba/Waugh proposal carried by a 4-2 vote). The Fant proposal, in fact, received higher aggregate scores on five of the seven criteria, and a higher overall score. At the Landmarks Commission’s January 30 meeting Maniaci argued against the Klebba/Waugh proposal (see video here – cue to 1:13:45). In addition to Maniaci’s opposition, Barbara Fant, through her attorney, has sent a letter to Mayor Soglin and Council President Cnare challenging the decision of the Surplus Property Committee.
The review and approval process for the two proposals chosen by the Surplus Property Committee seems to be a little unclear. The Landmarks Commission was uncertain of their role. Alder Mark Clear, who also testified to the Landmarks Commission on the matter, tried to clarify their charge. It was, he said, to assess whether the selected applicants (Klebba and Waugh) will be good stewards of the house, and whether accepting this application is in the best interest of the city. Clear, who voted in favor of the Klebba/Waugh proposal and argued for it before the Landmarks Commission, said that making the house more publicly available (as a B&B) is a better use.
Ultimately, the Landmarks Commission made a motion to recommend acceptance of the Klebba/Waugh proposal, but the vote was tied 3-3 with the chair refusing to break it. The motion failed.
From there the proposal goes to the Parks Commission in March, then to the Board of Estimates, then finally to the Council.
The Madison Trust elected to not endorse any one proposal over the others. We did testify at earlier meetings that the most desirable situation for the house would be under owner-occupancy rather than under the management of an absentee landlord. We felt that both the Klebba/Waugh and the Fant proposal brought together experienced teams who clearly valued the historic character of the houses and were ready to invest in the Landmarks and the neighborhood. It was a wonderful situation to have people competing for the opportunity to rehabilitate Landmark buildings. It is a shame that an exciting process for these Landmark houses