The Pain from the Gain

Riverwest has been in the spotlight lately, in magazine stories, radio programs, and a video documentary. Milwaukee Magazine is slated to come out with a story on Riverwest in July. It is becoming the place to be. The place to live, work, and play. The place that is diverse in name and claim, even if the connections between classes and races seem tenuous. The place many of us wanted it to be. Self-determining. Active. Full of peace, love, and goodwill with a touch of bohemian counter-culture. If you don’t agree with this perception of Riverwest, remember it is perception that drives people to act. In recent years, people have been moving into Riverwest who once would have never considered it. An hour on television and metro-wide magazine coverage may further encourage this trend. What is the price of success? Even though some in Riverwest would just as soon secede from the city and United States, the reality is that in this country there is an ever-present cloud of corporate and individual opportunists hovering over revitalizing urban communities. They are looking for any chance to suck up the profits resulting from our success in what new urbanists refer to as “making place.” Will Fuel Cafe be supplanted or neighbored by Starbucks? Is Alterra really community-oriented or just a smaller scale opportunist? Will speculators buy up all available property in an attempt to ride the wave of property value increases to some capitalist nirvana of giant SUVs and $10 martinis? Will we lose our soul? It is good to ask questions and monitor changes about the place in which we live and love. It is also good to realize that we are participants in the gain — the creation of a more stable, safe neighborhood. A place in which people can invest time and resources and expect to be rewarded for their efforts. The potential pain is the influx of outsiders who could come in to reap profits without any real commitment to community. As our cover story indicates, property values are on the rise. The value increases are a mixed good. They are a direct result of changing perceptions about Riverwest. This newspaper, along with many homeowners, residents, and businesses, has been trying to change perceptions of Riverwest for years. Let us look at an example of one property and how our changing neighborhood has generated some gain and some pain. 613/615 E. Meinecke Avenue sits next to the northwestern corner of Reservoir Park (see cover photos). This duplex was in complete disarray a few years back. It was listed by the neighborhood housing survey as the worst house in Riverwest in 2001. It was boarded up but still occupied by squatters. It was a known drug house and nothing but a problem for near neighbors. It was a property that had only negative value for the city and neighborhood. Enter real estate investor Timothy Brophy. The city records show the last conveyance on this property in January of 2001 for a sale price of around $17,000. The property had an assessed value of $23,100 at that time. The building had a raze order from the city. The first photo shows how the building looked in the summer of 2001. Brophy speculated, as did many others, that our neighborhood was a good place to buy distressed properties. Brophy has been criticized recently for overextending his reach and owning more properties than he can effectively manage. People have complained directly to me about his demeanor and manner of doing business. He is here to make money in the real estate business, as are many others. And like it or not, he is having an impact on our neighborhood. The second photo shows the result of exterior repairs. Brophy has to be credited with taking a wreck and restoring the outside of the home in a respectful manner. He has said he sold the building to an owner-occupant, but online city records (which may be outdated) still show him as owner. The assessed value of the building was $31,200 in 2002, $42,900 in 2003 and $85,800 in 2004. The property taxes on this property were $94 a month in 2003, and if the rates are similar, $188 in 2004. Most likely this property will continue to increase in assessed value in 2005 with a corresponding increase in rent and tax assessment. So what is the price of success? While I did not provide answers to my questions, as a concerned resident and publisher of this paper, I pledge to keep asking the questions and looking for answers.