Plans are on the drawing board that could radically reshape Downtown Milwaukee. Will we make the quantum leap or blow the chance to go big and bold?
Downtown Milwaukee stands on the brink of a reinvention.
Towers are going up. Major institutions are expanding. Highways are being moved and reconfigured. Restaurants and bars are opening at a rapid rate. Residential real estate is booming. And in the midst of the makeover, an enthusiasm for the future of the city’s Downtown is palpable.
Much hangs in the balance. In the coming months, important decisions will be made on the Shops of Grand Avenue and West Wisconsin Avenue, the Couture high-rise and the Downtown Transit Center, the proposed streetcar and public transportation, and, of course, a new sports and entertainment arena, which will determine the future of the Milwaukee Bucks. As 2014 winds down, these issues have become amplified.
“Two billionaires buying the Bucks shines this giant spotlight on the city,” says Gary Witt, executive director of the Pabst Theater Group.
That spotlight began to shine on April 16, the day former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl made it official: He was selling the Bucks to two self-made East Coast billionaires, Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens, for $550 million. The announcement that both Kohl and the new owners would each contribute $100 million for the construction of a new arena only made the spotlight brighter.
Downtown found its way to center stage that day, but for some time now, momentum had been building. It’s like a “fine bottle of champagne, and we are getting ready to pop the cork,” says Beth Weirick, CEO of the Milwaukee Downtown Business Improvement District.
There is potential for more change now than perhaps at any time in decades, and if it’s done “in concert with all the other initiatives that we have,” says developer Barry Mandel, “it allows for a quantum leap.”
Milwaukee has reached a tipping point where it needs to make real decisions about what the future holds for its Downtown. It’s on the threshold of something big. Of the dozens of people interviewed for this article, many talked about this being a “transformative” moment for the city.
Milwaukee’s estimated population sits a hair under 600,000, which ranks it as the nation’s 31st-largest city. Above Milwaukee on the list are Seattle, Denver, Boston, Nashville, Baltimore, Oklahoma City, Louisville, Ky., and Portland, Ore. Below, you’ll find cities like Albuquerque, Tucson, Ariz., Sacramento, Kansas City, Mo., and Virginia Beach, Va. Milwaukee occupies the space between large cities in warmer-weather states and those we tend to think of as “next-generation” or “global” cities.
Is the city ready for that quantum leap into the upper tier? Or will it keep chugging along the way it has in recent years, reluctant to make bold moves, letting golden opportunities slip away? What should the future look like? How does Milwaukee get there?
The lights are on. It’s showtime.
Vast changes are already in progress near the shores of Lake Michigan, and they will shape the city for generations to come. This is not an overstatement.
On the last Tuesday of August, hundreds of people interrupted their workday to gather at the eastern end of Wisconsin Avenue – that sweet spot of Downtown real estate, rimmed by the wings of the Milwaukee Art Museum; the orange, iron starburst sculpture; the lawns of O’Donnell Park; and the sprawling headquarters of Northwestern Mutual. Where a 16-story office building once stood, an open pit of collapsed steel and concrete now resided, surrounded by chain-link fencing.
This would be the site of Northwestern Mutual’s $450 million Tower and Commons, a 32-story tower that will house thousands of Northwestern employees. Although 10 stories shorter than the U.S. Bank building across Wisconsin Avenue, the new tower will be the most spacious building in Wisconsin at 1.1 million square feet.
Children’s music group Mariachi Infantil of the Latino Arts Strings Program entertained the crowd. Mayor Tom Barrett, Carmen Pitre of the Sojourner Family Peace Center and Northwestern CEO John Schlifske spoke to mark the occasion. And all joined together onstage to pull a huge lever, releasing blue and gold streamers over signs reading “WE BELIEVE IN MILWAUKEE,” signaling the kickoff of the construction project.
Northwestern Mutual’s era as “the quiet company” was over.
Northwestern told Barrett four years ago that the East Building had outlived its usefulness and needed to come down. As the state’s second-largest company – with offices also in Franklin – the company easily could have found a new home anywhere in the country. But it chose to stay in Downtown Milwaukee.
“It made a gigantic statement,” Barrett says. “The commitment of Northwestern Mutual to the city speaks volumes, and speaks very loudly.”
There’s a certain symbiosis to the relationship between Milwaukee and Northwestern Mutual. A thriving urban area is a prime motivator for growth and a huge component of the company’s ability to attract talented people for its next generation of employees. At the same time, NM’s pledge to keep 1,100 jobs Downtown, add 1,900 more permanent jobs at its new office, and employ 1,000 workers during the building’s construction, has clear importance for the city.
“Having a vibrant campus that attracts not just our employees to it, but the community at large, is going to create even more vibrancy in Milwaukee,” says Sandy Botcher, an NM vice president who is project leader for the Tower and Commons.
A few short blocks away, just a few weeks earlier, another office building had its groundbreaking. The 17-story 833 East building, by Irgens development, will rise into the sky, connected via skywalk to the U.S. Bank Center. Like the NM building, its exterior will largely be made of glass, an effort to capture vistas of the lakefront. Nearby is the proposed site for the Couture, and though approval is on hold for this $122 million apartment tower on the corner of Lincoln Memorial Drive and Michigan Street, its developer has released his grandiose plans. And at the corner of North Van Buren Street and Kilbourn Avenue, another high-rise is on the blackboard – a 37-story apartment tower by Chicago-based Carroll Properties.
MAM also is getting a face-lift, with a new addition on its east end scheduled to be completed by fall 2015. Just south of Discovery World, a new 8-acre public park is coming. And the Summerfest grounds, too, will see change. CEO Don Smiley has plans for redevelopment of the North Gate, gearing up for the music festival’s 50th anniversary in 2017.Weaving throughout much of these projects is the Lakefront Gateway Project. Intended to create a “grand entrance” to Downtown and make the lakefront more accessible, highways will be reconfigured to expand the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Lincoln Memorial Drive, and allow for more walking and biking.
Projects like these represent the big, loud changes coming to Downtown, but more are well on their way: The Mandel Group plans to build more than 800 new apartments in the city, likely including a high-rise at Prospect and Odgen avenues. The Posner building on West Wisconsin Avenue, home to Mo’s Irish Pub, is being redeveloped into residential and retail space. Kimpton Hotels is set to break ground on a nine-story luxury hotel in the Third Ward. Wangard Partners will soon open a 104-unit apartment building in the Park East corridor … the list goes on.
“There hasn’t been that scale of projects, let alone on multiple fronts, in recent memory,” says Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele.
There’s an overwhelming sense that there is a critical mass building in Milwaukee. “The city is blossoming and blooming and everything is growing,” says Witt, a Chicago transplant hired by Cudahy in 2002 to redo the Pabst. “There are great things happening. But now, the city leaders … they have to play their role. They can’t sit on their hands anymore. They’re not allowed to.”
Great expectations are nothing without making the right decisions. And rising from the streets of Downtown Milwaukee, there is a mountain of decisions to be made.
On the Horizon
If the possibility of a new sports and entertainment arena isn’t the single biggest factor in Downtown’s reinvention, it’s certainly the most public example of the debate surrounding what may lie ahead. It’s also contentious, and filled with five-sided puzzles and subsequent domino effects. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and each decision made in the coming months will have a far-reaching impact.
The Bucks’ new owners have promised a collaborative process with Milwaukee on an arena that works within the city’s larger vision. In a CNBC interview, Lasry, a 55-year-old Moroccan-American who is CEO of Avenue Capital in New York, said owning a team involves a “moral responsibility to the community.”
Defining what that means for Milwaukee remains to be seen, but the clock is ticking. Even before Edens and Lasry purchased the team, the NBA had said the BMO Harris Bradley Center was no longer worthy of the league’s current arena standards. Now, with at least a $200 million head start, the path forward requires a new arena to be underway by 2017, or else the Bucks will be sold to the NBA for $575 million.
“They can’t have a successful franchise here if Milwaukee isn’t successful,” says Tim Sheehy, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) president. “Our fates are inextricably linked. If we collectively are not successful in putting the case for a new arena in front of this community, they will lose the opportunity to own a team, that team will leave Milwaukee, and Messrs. Lasry and Edens will not be NBA owners.”
The Bradley Center arrived in Milwaukee at the tail end of a generation of “bad” NBA arenas, and in truth, was designed for hockey. The Fortress on Fourth is also essentially built upside down, with more seats on its upper level and a mere 7,783 seats in its lower bowl. Most NBA arenas nowadays have around 10,000 lower-bowl seats – a critical number for ticket sales and fan experience. In and of itself, it’s still a fine enough building, but with the escalating values of NBA franchises, the league’s television deal set to nearly triple, and cities like Seattle frothing at the mouth to acquire a team, there is no future for NBA basketball at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. It’s not a debate.
Bradley Center leadership also notes that they face serious and growing challenges in bringing national acts to an aging facility.
Edens, a 53-year-old Montana native who seems like the more nuts-and-bolts operator of the ownership duo, met with several city leaders during the dog days of summer about the next steps for an arena. “He has a three-step process,” says Milwaukee Ald. Bob Bauman, whose district includes Downtown. “Step 1: Identify a location. Step 2: Do the engineering and architecture to determine a price. Step 3: Worry about the financing – who’s going to pay what and how.”
At the Bucks’ late-September preseason media day, held in their Cousins Center practice facility a far cry from Downtown Milwaukee, sportswriters and cameramen crowded around Edens and Lasry. Both had an air of calm satisfaction while answering volley after volley of questions, many about their arena plans. “I’d really like to have a site locked down by the end of the year,” Edens said. “I think that’s a big milestone.” And while he wouldn’t tip his hand, Edens admitted he has a definite site preference. “I think there are two that are obviously better than the others. You can make others work, but there are clearly benefits to a couple of them.” From all indications, places outside of Downtown are not being seriously explored, the Park East is not preferred, and all signs point to a location west of the Milwaukee River. This leaves three primary options.
Option No. 1: West Wisconsin Avenue
Barren surface parking lots draw plenty of ire, and one such lot exists at the nerve center of Downtown. Between Fourth and Fifth streets just south of Wisconsin Avenue, the city-owned lot is bordered by the Wisconsin Center convention hall, the Hilton Milwaukee City Center and Boston Store.
Throughout many interviews about arena locations, phrases like “as close to Wisconsin Avenue as possible,” and “bringing more density to Downtown” were heard repeatedly. This site nails those goals. Across Wisconsin Avenue from the underperforming Wisconsin Center, a sports and entertainment arena could open up new opportunities for the floundering Shops of Grand Avenue and incorporate public transportation, with heavy bus traffic continually rolling down the street, and the Intermodal Station located two blocks away. It’s also within walking distance for Marquette University students, who could watch their beloved Golden Eagles play there.
This site would require tearing down Boston Store, which is struggling despite the city’s $1.2 million aid package to parent company Bon-Ton, or even demolishing non-historic portions of the Shops of Grand Avenue. A Zilber parking garage on the block’s southern end would need to come down, but Zilber executive Mike Mervis says the development firm supports this location.
Option No. 2: Bradley Center North
Amid vast swaths of surface parking and bordered by Juneau Avenue, Fourth Street, Sixth Street and the BMO Harris Bradley Center, this site involves, by far, the fewest demolition obstacles and more parking options than any other.
There’s potential for added development in vacant Park East sites, which could conceivably extend into other neighborhoods to the north. This general area is preferred by developer Gary Grunau, who has successfully redeveloped Schlitz Park, a few blocks northeast from this location.
Option No. 3: Kilbourn Avenue
This location would involve tearing down the Journal Communications building and the UWM Panther Arena (formerly U.S. Cellular Arena). Located between State Street and Kilbourn Avenue, it presents a middle ground between those who don’t like Fourth and Wisconsin as an option, and those who think the Bradley Center North site is too far removed from the central business district. And at this point, even the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is acknowledging its location is in play. It’s a “viable” option, and one that “would make MacArthur Square a lot more developable,” says Rocky Marcoux, commissioner of the department of city development.
Architect David Uihlein Jr. and his sister, Lynde Uihlein – the children of Bradley Center financier Jane Bradley Pettit – threw their support behind a modification of this plan in late September, preferring to tear down the Milwaukee Theatre instead of the Journal Communications building. Uihlein urged members of “the local wealth community” to donate resources, and pledged family funds toward securing an architectural and engineering firm. Not surprisingly, both options are opposed by Frank Gimbel, chairman of Wisconsin Center District, which owns the Milwaukee Theatre and UWM Panther Arena.
To be sure, self-interest weaves its way through all of this. But wherever the location lands, the larger goal is catalytic impact.
“It’s not just about building an arena,” Edens says, “but creating an experience and the whole revitalization of Downtown, which we think is a big part of the goal here.” Arenas in Oklahoma City and Indianapolis have been used as examples by many, and the Barclays Center in Brooklyn – home to the Brooklyn Nets, in which Lasry had a 3 percent ownership stake – is considered the new gold standard of both design and larger impact development.
The use of public money to support a sports franchise owned by billionaires is not the easiest concept to stomach. The Milwaukee metro region has other significant challenges to address – crime, unemployment, economic disparities, education and public health care, among many others.
Yet, with the exception of top-five markets, most NBA-anchored facilities are built with some public funding.
Compared to the funding plan of Miller Park, a political hot potato when it was hammered out in 1995, the Bucks have a few things working to their advantage, and, potentially, the advantage of taxpayers and constituents. Comparatively, the public funding portion for a new Milwaukee arena may not be all that large.
Consider: 1) a $200 million head start from current and former ownership, which could be further augmented by Kohl or Edens and Lasry, 2) local investors – including familiar business leaders such as Ted Kellner of Fiduciary Management, Jim Kacmarcik of Kapco and Keith Mardak of Hal Leonard Corp. – have already ponied up more than $80 million that could go toward an arena, a number likely to increase, and 3) sure-to-come sponsorship deals, other investments for in-arena amenities, and naming rights (keep an eye on the no-longer-Quiet Company, which is already a major NCAA sponsor).
Also, with Downtown as the location focus, “This has prospects for revitalization that go well beyond [Miller Park],” says John Daniels, chairman emeritus at Quarles & Brady. And though Miller Park generally has the community’s support, it “adds almost nothing to the economic vitality of Milwaukee,” says Bauman, since it is far removed from the central business district.
But how to fund the arena? Political leaders in Racine, Waukesha and Ozaukee counties have pledged to not support any new taxes going toward the construction, doing so before any proposal has been put on the table. Regionally, the Bucks, who haven’t won a playoff series since 2001, are a tough sell. In the city, there is far more support for a new arena among political and business leaders, real estate developers, entertainment groups and other Downtown institutions.
According to Bauman, conventional city funding methods won’t be viable. “The state Legislature has to be involved in any public financing solution because of the amount of money involved and because of the lack of tools that exist at the local level to raise revenue,” he says. “With the conservative politics that exist and the anti-Milwaukee sentiment that exists in the Legislature, it’s anybody’s guess what’ll happen. And it’s very likely it could blow up and go down in flames, and they’ll just move the team.”
State Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) is a member of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee and says it would be a mistake to have “preconceived notions” about potential legislative actions on the issue. Kooyenga, who stands at 6-foot-7, played college basketball in Illinois and at Lakeland College in Sheboygan. He’s also an Iraq War veteran and a CPA. With the state’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau now studying the Bucks’ economic impact, Kooyenga is approaching the funding discussion as an accountant, saying, “There’s a possibility if [the Bucks left], that would create a budget hole because you’re losing that revenue from the income taxes.”
Sheehy has discussed the issue with Walker and Republican legislative leadership. “We’ve heard very clearly: If your goal is to raise the sales tax or take an increment in the sales tax and apply it toward funding these cultural institutions … the door to that is through a referendum,” Sheehy says. “I think that’s fair enough. The theoretical discussion will come to a strategic decision in the next six-to-eight months.”
To examine funding options for an arena and other Milwaukee County attractions, MMAC organized the Cultural and Entertainment Capital Needs Task Force – a 48-member group co-chaired by Daniels and top executives at Johnson Controls (Chuck Harvey) and the Milwaukee Public Museum (Jay Williams). “We should not lose this opportunity, brought on by the discussion of a new NBA arena, to broaden the discussion to the culture and arts institutions that are assets here,” Sheehy says. “We have underinvested in our parks system, in our public museum, our performing arts center, the zoo…”
Gary Witt is disappointed with the task force’s ideas. He thinks they pale in comparison to other bigger and bolder plans to remake the core of the city. Witt is not on the task force. Were he, he’d make some people unhappy. During an interview backstage at the Pabst, he’s both a scorched-earth quote machine and curious as to why I’m even talking to him.
“In essence,” he says, “the [task force’s] study was done telling us ways we could help the Marcus Center build a parking garage, the Ballet build a place where they could rehearse, a turnaround for the Public Museum, and a pittance for the county parks. It’s important that a study was commissioned, but inside the study, the idea was funding arts groups in the city. Giving some arts groups more money is like giving a fat kid cake.”
Another detractor – and a member of the task force – is the community advocacy group Common Ground, which has launched the “Fair Play” campaign, saying if public money is used to build an arena, funding should also help improve Milwaukee’s parks and recreational facilities.
“[The task force has] been loud and clear back to us that they are not interested in playgrounds and parks and athletic facilities,” says Jennifer O’Hear, who chairs Fair Play. “But we have continued to stay there and continued to make our voice heard.”
O’Hear and Keisha Krumm, Common Ground’s lead organizer, say they aren’t against a new arena or funding for arts groups. Rather, they want underprivileged neighborhoods to also benefit from the Downtown-centered funding – a “both/and” strategy rather than an “either/or” strategy, Krumm says.
“If we invest in playgrounds and parks, everybody can benefit in that, not just the people who can afford to go see the Bucks or go to the art museum or those sorts of things,” Krumm says. “If the investment is only in Downtown, it shows that the priorities are for the people who can afford the amenities Downtown.”
In late September, task force co-chair Williams presented an outline of funding “options,” which will lead to a December recommendation. The baseline option: annual public investments estimated at $33.9 million over 20 years would total $445 million, and would fund not just the arena, but other capital improvements and deferred maintenance costs. (See sidebar for more information.)
For funding sources, the task force focuses on consumption taxes (“sin” taxes), ticket taxes, sales taxes and a tax incremental financing (TIF) district. Ruled out are local income tax hikes, property tax increases, a room/car rental/food tax increase, and the so-called “jock tax” on Bucks’ players and executives.
Attorney Frank Gimbel, longtime chairman of the Wisconsin Center District, has endorsed another version of how to remake Downtown Milwaukee. In a report commissioned by the district, HVS Consulting suggests expanding the convention center to the north and creating an “entertainment corridor” that links to a new sports arena where the Bradley Center now stands, as well as the Milwaukee Theatre and the UWM Panther Arena. This corridor would feature indoor retail and a covered outdoor plaza that could evolve into a variation of Chicago’s Millennium Park, says Gimbel.
Gimbel’s management of the district has been questioned, and Gimbel acknowledges the convention center has “fallen behind” other comparably sized cities that have larger centers. Total attendance for the Wisconsin Center declined from more than 1 million at its peak in 2002 to 611,000 in 2012, according to the report released earlier this year. “We’re at the point now where, if we are going to expand, we need a new source of money to pay the debt on the investment,” he says. With an expansion by 2019, its budget would stabilize by 2022. Without an expansion, multimillion dollar losses would mount each year.
The entertainment corridor, he says, would be added value. “I think the community needs more than just an expanded convention center to enhance its profile in the future as a destination and as a quality-of-life thing,” he says. “That was a message in the report, that we better change the profile of this city – young people, talented people that are prospective employees. And I think that’s a component of this more global approach to making Milwaukee’s tomorrow look better than today.”
Kitty-corner from the convention center, the Shops of Grand Avenue has been targeted for a makeover by yet another civic group. The Wisconsin Avenue Milwaukee Development Corporation, or WAM DC, is working to buy the mall and reconfigure it to allow for better street access and uses other than retail.WAM DC is chaired by Stephen Chernof, a partner at Godfrey and Kahn, and has the support of Mayor Barrett and city development director Marcoux. Reconfiguration would largely mean better embracing Wisconsin Avenue, with more of the mall’s tenants facing the street and taking advantage of its wide sidewalks.
Among WAM DC members is developer Gary Grunau, who says the goal is to downsize retail and make the mall partly residential and partly educational. “You’re surrounded on all three sides by schools – UWM, Marquette and MSOE,” Grunau says. “The involvement of those thousands of students would be a very positive thing.”
Milwaukee actually has more college students than Madison, an often-overlooked fact. Attracting more young people to West Wisconsin Avenue and Downtown could enhance retail and residential real estate, potentially transforming the avenue into an actual attraction.
Now owned by Bank of America commercial mortgage trust, the Shops of Grand Avenue is up for auction, with a starting bid set at $4.75 million. Two potential outcomes emerge: Either WAM DC is successful in its efforts, or some unknown group will purchase the mall and give it an uncertain future, which could stymie plans for other Wisconsin Avenue development, including a potential arena site. (Editor’s note: WAM DC came up short in its efforts to purchase the Grand Avenue. Click here for more on the mall’s uncertain future.)
The walls of Rick Barrett’s Downtown office in the former Blatz building are covered with architectural renderings that do not look like Milwaukee. In the drawings, a sleek, glassy, futuristic building bolts 44 stories into the sky. People mill around its open-air base, where a streetcar loops through a variety of shops. Pencil-thin compared to its neighboring structures, the building hugs the surrounding street corners and sidewalks that sit within shouting distance of a shoreline park and a beautiful body of water.
The Couture is what Barrett wants to build where the cavernous Downtown Transit Center currently takes up space at the corner of East Michigan Street and Lincoln Memorial Drive. His plan includes three pedestrian bridges connecting the tower to the lakefront. It would boast 50,000 square feet of retail (“I always envisioned that as a boutique grocer-type concept,” he says), 97 percent public space on the first floor, a bike-sharing station, more than 100 public parking spaces, and a rooftop park.
At 507 feet tall, the Couture would be well under the 601-foot height of the main U.S. Bank building. But its prominence along the lakefront – for better or worse – would be startling. The project has the support of Mayor Tom Barrett (who is not related to Rick Barrett), the county exec and the governor, and has been driven in large part by philanthropist Mike Cudahy.
“Milwaukee has forever sort of said ‘There’s the lakefront, and then there’s Milwaukee,’” notes Cudahy. “The two have never been tied together properly. This brings that all together. It allows pedestrians to cross over Lincoln Memorial to enjoy the attractions that are down there in a big way.”
Abele says building both the Couture and Northwestern Mutual towers signifies a new era in Milwaukee. “The metaphor I use is two big exclamation points on the skyline that say, ‘Hey, this isn’t the tired old Milwaukee you used to associate with ‘Happy Days’ or whatever,” he says. “This is a vibrant, booming, hip town that people are investing in. That’s not us saying it. Here’s tangible proof.”
Many suggest the residential real estate market is driving Downtown’s reinvention, with young people gravitating to densely populated urban areas and empty-nesters leaving the suburbs for the cities.
“Right now, I think we have about 21,000 Downtown residents,” says Rick Barrett. “I think there needs to be a thrust amongst all leaders, politicians and elected officials to create the density to the tune of – over the next 10, 15 years – 35,000 to 40,000 Downtown residents. Oklahoma City is moving in 2,500 new residents every month. That’s shocking stuff to me, but they are really putting in real effort to make that happen.”
Enthusiasm and market forces aside, the Couture is not yet fully approved. Preserve Our Parks plans to file a lawsuit to stop construction. The group claims the project violates the state Constitution’s public trust doctrine, is in conflict with a larger 2010 plan for the lakefront, and unfairly hands over public land to a private entity. Legislation signed by Gov. Walker to help pave the way for the Couture has not deterred Preserve Our Parks’ intent to sue, if and when the transit center is sold to Barrett’s firm with the approval of the Milwaukee County Board.
Argues John Lunz, the group’s president: Once public spaces are out of the public domain, they’re gone forever. “We seem to have taken on the attitude that we cannot afford to maintain our parks anymore,” Lunz says, “so we ought to just turn them over to some private entity. But there’s no assurance that they’ll keep them as parks.”
If Rick Barrett’s project prevails, his plans will include an interesting wrinkle – a public transit hub that incorporates not only bus routes, but also a streetcar stop. “Milwaukee happens to be the largest city without a streetcar in the country,” he says. “I felt that it was important to lend a helping hand developmentally.”
Several others – including Grunau, Witt, and city officials Marcoux, Bauman, and city engineer Jeff Polenske – say a public funding package for a new arena should include funding for public transportation. Bucks co-owner Edens is no stranger to transit initiatives, particularly fixed-rail. His company, Fortress Investment Group, is working to build “All Aboard Florida,” a 240-mile, $1 billion high-speed passenger rail service that would connect Miami and Orlando.
The addition of a streetcar route in Milwaukee is far more uncertain. Plans for a light-rail system have been bandied about for years, and there’s still no concrete timeline for construction of any kind. A proposal approved in 2011 by the Common Council and mayor calls for a 2.1-mile route and $64.6 million budget for the overall project – $54.9 million from a federal earmark and $9.7 million of local money. The route would start at the Intermodal Station Downtown, ending at the corner of Prospect and Ogden on the lower East Side.
Although the streetcar plan has been politicized since the early days of its introduction, I heard a surprising amount of support for it from Milwaukee’s city leaders – politicians, developers or entertainment promoters. Even Sheehy, who says there are serious reservations about the streetcar among MMAC members, says, “Milwaukee should look closely at this kind of investment,” and didn’t rule it out as being part of the larger arena-centered public funding package.
Part of the reason developers support fixed rail is the certainty it brings. “People miss that about the streetcar,” Cudahy says. “Once you put the tracks in the ground, a developer says, ‘Hmm, I guess those will be there for awhile.’ Whereas if it’s a new bus route, the bus department can change their mind any minute and change the route.”
But the project is stalled, bogged down by a disagreement over who pays for the utility relocations necessary to execute the project. Under a state law passed in 2013, Milwaukee must foot the bill for any utility relocations the project requires. Ald. Bauman – perhaps the streetcar’s biggest champion – only gives the fixed-rail project a 50-50 chance of coming to fruition. He puts the stalemate squarely on We Energies.
“We Energies got in the picture and basically has undertaken a campaign to blow the entire project up over this whole utility question,” Bauman says. “They are clearly and unalterably standing in the way of an economic development project in Milwaukee that will use electricity, ironically enough.”
But at the southeastern corner of Downtown, planners are readying a new grand entrance.
The $34 million Lakefront Gateway Project will extend Lincoln Memorial south to provide a direct route to the Third Ward along the lake, and turn Clybourn Street into a two-way boulevard. It will open up new acreage south of Clybourn for what some are calling the best development site in the state.
The project is now in its design phase, with construction slated to begin Aug. 27, 2015, as the reworking of Hoan Bridge nears its end. As a finishing touch, strung along the arches of the iconic Hoan more than 150 feet above the waters of Lake Michigan, will be sets of splashy LED lights.
The Will to Change
According to optimists, transforming Downtown would entail all of these projects coming to fruition in one way, shape or form. The targets have been set; the enthusiasm is there. And there is confidence on many fronts that these projects will result in a full-fledged renaissance for Downtown Milwaukee.
But some are dubious. A shadow of doubt looms large in the Downtown spotlight.
As Bauman puts it, “We’ve shown the capacity to screw things up, without any question.”
As this convergence of reinvention builds, there remains the question of feasibility, and of leadership. In numerous interviews, I asked whether Milwaukee has the leadership to make all of this happen. Few offered an emphatic yes.
“I think our political leaders have not been bold enough,” Cudahy says. “How do you get bold if you’re not?”
Herein lies a familiar Milwaukee complaint: The powers that be are too complacent. Too stubborn. They seem to go out of their way to avoid change, unwilling or unable to set their sights on something bigger. This leaves problems unsolved, opportunities unaccomplished, goals never met. Maybe the city’s leaders are afraid of that spotlight. Maybe they’re not ready to take the stage.
Then again, perhaps they already have.
“It’s not like we’re lagging behind and we’re waiting for something to jump-start us,” Witt says. “The city has already been jump-started. We’re waiting for certain elements of the city to reach that same level of motion and forward movement that the city has had. We’re the actual example of the Richard Florida creative class. Because this city and its growth in the last 10 to 15 years was spurred on not by politicians, not by rich guys, not by large corporations moving their bodies here. It was a future that was defined by forensically retracing the footsteps of how people used the city. Participation is the new power agent of the city of Milwaukee.”
Groups like Colectivo, Bartolotta Restaurants, the Lowlands Group, the Mandel Group, Summerfest, Milwaukee Film and the Urban Ecology Center, along with growing neighborhoods like Bay View, Walker’s Point and the Third Ward have been among those leading the charge on Milwaukee’s unconventional path to reinvention.
Adding to the challenge is a tension between Milwaukee and its surrounding counties that cannot be ignored. But what also can’t be ignored is that these issues in Milwaukee’s Downtown – however they are viewed – have an impact on the entire region, and ultimately, the entire state.
“Only in Milwaukee County do a slim majority of people live and work in the same county,” says MMAC’s Sheehy. “In the other surrounding counties, the majority of people work outside the county they live in. Our prosperity is connected. You can’t move far enough away to get away from the problem. If you’re in the toilet bowl, and the bowl flushes, you’re going down, too. You’ve got to be a suburb of something.”
The year 2017 is shaping up to be a landmark one for the city. The Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons will open, the Lakefront Gateway Project will be completed, and Summerfest will celebrate its 50th anniversary. By 2017, tenants could begin moving into the Couture. The Grand Avenue mall could finally be an asset and spark growth on West Wisconsin Avenue. A convention center expansion might be underway. Streetcars could be ferrying riders around Downtown. A dedicated funding stream could open for Downtown’s cultural, entertainment and recreational amenities. And walls could be going up for a new Downtown arena. It’s all in play.
“If we’re held back, it’s our own fault,” Weirick says. “It’s our own fault for not believing this city is capable of building these kinds of attractions and sustaining them. These are major catalytic projects. It is time for our city to dig deep.”
Yet within these lofty goals is the question of necessity versus desire.
“I’ve made clear with Wes [Edens] and Marc [Lasry], anything I can responsibly do to help make this a success, I will do. I will kick walls down,” Abele says. “But when we’re having the discussion about what are things we might do with a couple hundred million maybe for the arena, there are other things on my list that probably have a higher return for more people. I say this as an at-least 12-year season-ticket holder for the Bucks. The Bucks are nice to have. There are a lot of things that are ‘need-to-have’ that are higher on my list.”
Perhaps it’s a question of priorities and responsible execution. A Downtown transformation, Sheehy says, would attract talent and new business. Daniels says it would play a role in making Milwaukee more diverse. Bauman says it would increase the overall tax base, helping the city fund services that benefit everyone while creating more jobs. As Mayor Barrett says, “Downtown development is all about jobs.”
Seizing the opportunities could lift “the entire community,” Daniels says. “It’s going to help some portions of the region who may not think it’s going to help them. If we really do something transformative, it’s going to create economic vibrancy for the community for decades. It’ll carry us.”
Even in the face of Milwaukee’s biggest problems, a Downtown reinvention now would not be a misguided priority, says Ricardo Diaz, executive director of the United Community Center on Milwaukee’s South Side. Instead, the boomtown could have a snowball effect, impacting struggling neighborhoods where opportunities are most needed, and the region at large. The invitation to the reinvention and whatever comes of it is not limited to a select few. All are welcome.
“Downtown,” Diaz says, “is everybody’s neighborhood.”
Dan Shafer is an assistant editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Write to him at email@example.com.
Dan Shafer discusses the Downtown boom on WUWM’s “Lake Effect” Nov. 4 at 10 a.m.
This story appeared in the November, 2014, issue of Milwaukee Magazine. Click here to subscribe.