Saturday, August 24th, 2019

YMCA owes city apology


YMCA owes city apology

 It tore down history and put up a parking lot

Waukesha Freeman September 12, 2013 Page A6 Opinion

The Lovely Doreen from Waukesha and I drive past the corner all the time. Doreen often looks over at the vacant lot and sarcastically says, “Good thing they tore down that beautiful old building for more parking.”

The “beautiful old building” was a Tudor-style gas station at the corner of Hartwell and Broadway on the edge of the YMCA property. Despite the relatively unique nature of the building and the historical significance, the building was torn down to make way for new development.

At the time, I was somewhat ambivalent about the decision. There has to be a balance between historical preservation and new development.

On the one hand, most communities do not want to be like Las Vegas that tears down its history for bigger and better hotel casinos. Of course, even Las Vegas has some sense of history in the old downtown.

On the flip side, living in a community where every building decision is controlled by a desire for historical preservation is a good way to depress property values and prevent development.

The balance between historic preservation and the need for new development seemed to actually favor tearing down the historic gas station. The city was promised a new housing development. Historic preservationists were very late in trying to save the building, giving the impression that the historical significance was really an afterthought.

Then the housing project never happened.

Now the YMCA is converting the lot into green space, some parking and putting up a sign. If that had been their original plan, I wonder if the city would have allowed the old gas station to be torn down.

It’s possible. I’ve mentioned before how little we do to preserve and show our Spring City heritage. We have cheaplooking murals celebrating “Guitar-Town” in a city that doesn’t manufacture guitars and Les Paul’s boyhood home was torn down.

Mayor Jeff Scrima even said the county should let the museum in the heart of our city fail financially.

On the other hand, there was a strong outpouring of sentiment for the historic building when the YMCA announced their original plans.

What would have been the outcry from the community had we known that all that would be left was a permanent vacant lot and a small billboard?

The YMCA owes the community an apology. They tore down a piece of our city’s history and gave us nothing in return.

Unfortunately, we can’t undo the wrecking ball. The least the YMCA can do is say they’re sorry.

The sad irony is the sign itself, which will say welcome to historic downtown Waukesha. There was history on that spot, but it’s gone now.

Former Alderman Duane Paulson was probably on the right track when he proposed that property owners should have to give their consent before a property was designated a historic landmark. However, some balance needs to be struck, and it would be worth the Common Council’s time to discuss this before we lose another historic treasure for an asphalt field.

* * *

An interesting side note is the type of sign being put up by the YMCA which, the Waukesha Freeman reported on Saturday, is similar to one planned at Carroll University. The signs will welcome visitors to “historic” downtown Waukesha.

If we can be grateful for small favors, at least the new signs are not a continuation of the silly attempt to rebrand the city as “GuitarTown.” (Did I mention we do not manufacture guitars in Waukesha?) We’re being spared the scourge of bad imitation antique signage spreading from downtown to other neighborhoods.

I’m told that the signs were being coordinated with the Department of Community Development. Somebody is looking ahead to the day when Scrima is no longer mayor.

(James Wigderson is a blogger publishing at and a Waukesha resident. His column runs Thursdays in The Freeman.)

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