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Conversion of Sinai Samaritan to Apartments Faced Difficulties

More than five years ago, Gorman & Co. took on the challenge of converting the oldest building on the campus of the former Sinai Samaritan Medical Center into apartments.

The project at 2200 W. Kilbourn Ave. was a key component in the ambitious goal of redeveloping the former hospital and bringing new life to the largely low-income neighborhood.

The 99-unit apartment complex – the Historic Lofts on Kilbourn – has an occupancy rate of more than 90% and has drawn tenants ranging from Marquette University students to retirees with a range of incomes.

The stately six-story, red-brick building, with a meticulously restored lobby of marble, wood and ironwork, is considered a model of redevelopment. But the project was not without its challenges.

“It’s held its own,” said Chris Laurent, president of Gorman & Co.’s Wisconsin operations.

Former hospitals – typically cobbled together over decades of expansions – are difficult to renovate. And unlike former warehouses or factories, they are not configured for apartments.

“That’s the challenge,” Laurent said.

The project, which received tax credits for affordable housing and historic preservation, has positive cash flow, he said. But it came in a bit over budget. And drawing people to the site initially was difficult, although its proximity to Marquette has helped.

“It’s been a challenging market,” Laurent said. “But we feel the neighborhood is strengthening.”

Gorman dives in
Gorman & Co., based in Oregon, near Madison, knows the challenges of developing housing in low-income neighborhoods. The company is working on its 18th project in Milwaukee, including one at the former Pabst brewery complex.

“Gorman & Co. has been a tremendous partner,” said Andrea Rowe Richards, spokeswoman for the Department of City Development.

The Historic Lofts on Kilbourn were one of the cornerstones of the ambitious effort by City on a Hill, an urban ministry focused on the poor, to redevelop the 18.5-acre campus west of N. 20th St. between W. Kilbourn Ave. and W. State St.

The project was an outgrowth of a community event in August 2000 by the City on a Hill’s predecessor organization and Convoy of Hope, a national organization, held at former hospital.

Later that year Aurora, which had consolidated the hospital with Aurora Sinai Medical Center at 945 N. 12th St. in 1998, transferred the four remaining buildings, totaling 321,000 square feet, to City on a Hill.

“What’s being developed is a comprehensive community center,” said Diane De La Santos, executive director of the City on a Hill and a former vice president for public affairs for Aurora.

The former hospital complex now is home to a charter school, the Milwaukee Academy of Science, a two-year Christian college, and tenants, such as Milwaukee Careers Co-op and Family Leadership Academy, that provide an array of services. This is in addition to services, such as programs, parenting skills, teen mentoring and health screenings, provided by the City on a Hill.

“It did not seem financially feasible,” De La Santos said. “But God has helped us make our way.”

Future projects could include a plan to convert the hospital’s former maternity wing into senior housing.

Commonwealth Development Corp., based in Fond du Lac, has proposed a 52-unit senior housing complex in one of the empty buildings on the campus. The company is still working on obtaining financing but has been approved for tax credits from the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority.

“What’s happened, so far is good,” said June Moberly, executive director of the Avenues West Association.

Redeveloping the campus has taken longer than initially expected, Moberley said. But she acknowledged that the site is huge.

It also was empty 10 years ago.

Mixture hits goal
De La Santos noted that Gorman & Co., which bought part of the complex, took a considerable risk on the project.

The apartments range from 545 to 1,510 square feet and from one to three bedrooms. A set number of the apartments are reserved for people with limited incomes. Rents range from $588 a month to $1,164.

The result is an apartment complex in which the tenants have a mix of incomes. That’s a goal in urban planning.

“We believe it strengthens the neighborhood,” said Richards of the Department of City Development.

That’s partly what appeals to Rochelle Spencer.

“I like the mixture – the students, the elderly,” said Spencer, who moved into the complex in August.

She also likes the convenient location, security, amenities and the people.

The amenities include washer and dryer in each unit, private movie theater, fitness center, community room and off-street parking.

Some of those amenities were designed to create a sense of community. But Laurent said doing that can be as simple as encouraging people to meet and talk to neighbors.

Fostering a sense of community has been one of Gorman & Co.’s goals for the project. But it also is good business.

“If people feel they are part of a neighborhood,” Laurent said, “they stay.”