MILWAUKEE – The Milwaukee Board of Zoning Appeals on Thursday unanimously rejected a request by Right Step, a military style school in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, for a special use permit to educate 140 troubled students in a vacant Milwaukee Public School building in the Riverwest neighborhood, effectively blocking the building’s sale.
“We’re deeply disappointed,” CJ Szafir, an attorney with the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty who is representing Right Step, said in an interview after the decision. “This is something that Right Step has been pursuing since January. It has been an uphill battle since day one fighting the city machine.”
Right Step first notified the city of Milwaukee on Feb. 25 of its intent to purchase the vacant Centro del Nino school. The choice school had hoped to complete the purchase of the empty Milwaukee Public Schools property by Aug. 1 so it could expand its operations for the 2016-17 school year. The Milwaukee Common Council finally approved the sale July 26, contingent on approval of a special-use permit being granted by the Board of Zoning Appeals.
The city’s zoning appeals board delayed making a decision at its July 28 and Sept. 8 meetings before finally voting unanimously to reject the special use permit. The building is currently zoned commercial under the city’s Northeast Side Comprehensive Plan.
Board members said the decision was not because of concerns about the style of education at the Right Step school. Instead they focused most of their criticisms of the zoning request on safety and traffic concerns.
“My main concern is the traffic and pedestrian safety,” said board member Eric Lowenberg before the vote. “There have been numerous submissions, numerous remarks made in the testimony, and I think their concern is genuine.”
Board Vice Chairman Henry Szymanski agreed with Lowenberg and added that he thought there were better uses for the building. “I believe there is a higher use, a higher value of use both for the building and the adjacent premises,” Szymanski said. “I would hope that we could continue to work with the city to find a more appropriate and better use for that property.”
What that use might be is something of a mystery. The former Centro del Nino school has been vacant for 11 years. The annual utilities cost to Milwaukee Public Schools to maintain the site was $8,256 and the annual carrying cost was $21,474 as of 2012.
Szafir said there was more to the denial than the concerns expressed by the board members.
“We’ve always had the odds stacked against us because we’re having to go up against various members of the Milwaukee Common Council that are hard against it, the people in city government that are against it, and the public sector unions that continue to mobilize and continue to protest against us,” Szafir said. “At the end of the day, it was just too high of a hill for us to overcome.”