Extended Conversation on Architecture: Bob Greenstreet and Rocky Marcoux

The Dean of UW-Milwaukee School of Architecture & Urban Planning and the Commissioner of the Milwaukee Department of City Development chat about architecture.

Building Up

Bob Greenstreet, Dean, UW-Milwaukee School of Architecture & Urban Planning
Rocky Marcoux, Commissioner, Milwaukee Department of City Development

In terms of aesthetics, Milwaukee is fortunate to have miles of shoreline and scenic rivers, plus a pleasing combination of historical buildings and contemporary architecture.

While the topographical characteristics are the equivalent of having good genes, the city’s built landscape isn’t just a matter of luck. Not only has there been a concerted preservation effort; there is also a great deal of planning involved in deciding what gets built. And among the thought leaders in that arena are Bob Greenstreet and Rocky Marcoux.

Greenstreet has led Wisconsin’s only architecture school for more than two decades, while Marcoux has held his current position with the city since 2004. The two are friends and colleagues, united in their enthusiasm for Milwaukee, as well as their dedication to helping make the best decisions, design-wise, for the city. They started this conversation – inside the Santiago Calatrava-designed Quadracci Pavilion – by reflecting on the factors that have helped elevate architecture in Milwaukee. – Moderated by Carole Nicksin

A condensed version of this conversation was published in the January 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine’s cover story: Let’s Talk It Out.

Building Up: Bob Greenstreet & Rocky Marcoux

BG: The evolution that I’ve seen that, the city has developed a much greater pride and awareness of its architecture. There are two reasons I ascribe to the improvement and quality: One is this building, which was a remarkable benchmark in showing that architecture could be spectacular and great and could be embraced by the city. The other thing I’ve seen from a self-serving perspective is that the School of Architecture [at UWM], which was 10 years old when I came, evolved. It’s the first school of architecture in Wisconsin.

RM: And the only one, right?

BG: Yeah, the only one. And the best.

RM: That goes without saying, right?

BG: So, basically, those graduates stayed and now run all the major practices. I think that it just raised the bar in terms of quality of architecture.

RM: And it also helped that for four years, you were the city planner.

BG: We set up a design review. We were trying to raise the bar. It doesn’t mean that every building is going to be like this. But getting the lesser buildings up a little bit, they may not be great buildings, but they are better than they were going to be.

RM: The question is, how do we get a project across the finish line that meets the needs of the developer who has certain financial constraints, has some architectural value, but also advances the overall goals of the city?

The Lakefront Gateway parcel was created when the city invested about $24 million into moving those freeway ramps, and the state invested about $16 million. Now, a short-sighted view would be, sell the land and let somebody build what they think they could build there. There are a lot of developers that would do a five-story, 10-story building. That building probably needs to be 30 stories. This isn’t just about tax space. Look at the buildings that surround [the parcel]: You’ve got the Skidmore Owings & Merrill modernist design of the U.S. Bank tower, you’ve got the incredible Northwestern Mutual building.

BG: The symbolic value of buildings in a city like Milwaukee, every single one is important. So a building like Northwestern Mutual, for example, the single most important thing about it for me is the fact that it’s there. Its symbolic value says, this is the most valuable site in the city, we have committed to this city with thousands of jobs and we have faith in the future of this city.

Sometimes a smaller building is basically saying, well, that’s all that our downtown is worth. That hurts the city as a whole.

There’s stuff we don’t always win. One of our first big fights was on the Amtrak station and getting that glass front. That was not what was planned for that building.

You have all of these folks coming from Chicago – now we’re up to over 800,000 passengers a year on that line. You go to great cities and the train station is the focal point because that’s how you arrive, right? These are symbolic buildings. But you would go to the old station, which is still under [the current] building. You would apologize to your friends from Chicago because that’s how they arrived.

When we both started, there was already something in place [for renovating the train station] and it was kind of a facelift because they only had about $500,000 for everything. So it was a noble effort but we said no, this is a public building that needs to be much more impressive.

RM: We challenged the state, because the state was the owner. I’m not throwing the state under the bus here. They had an idea. And their idea was, let’s get a private developer involved, because if we get a private developer involved they can carry the cost of doing the upgrade, and it won’t cost us anything. Of course, the developer can only get back a return on what is taxable and what it can make in terms of Amtrak as the tenant and the square footage of office space that would be created. So we ended up with a design that was less than memorable.

BG: Because there was no budget. Yeah, no budget and it wasn’t a fault of the former architectural team, who we had great respect for. We knew we couldn’t get Grand Central, right? But the idea is you go into Grand Central, you can’t wait to experience the rest of that city, right? It gets you excited. Union Station in Washington, D.C. – or any of the Union stations.

We essentially threw a wrench into something that was quite far along and the state officers said, ‘We want to come talk to you.’ And we’re sitting in your office, and you come in and say, ‘They’re here.’ There were 25 of them.

RM: It was a delegation. We basically said, ‘We’re sorry, but we think that we can raise more money for this. We don’t like this design. We need to do better.’ This is going to be here for the next generation because you don’t rebuild buildings like this except maybe every generation. So they threw the gauntlet back to us and said, ‘We’re willing to let you do this, but it’s on your dime.’

So we had to in turn say, how are we going to do this? We went to the mayor with a plan. Bob said the mayor OK’d it because the portions that are owned by this private developer and this new entity would be taxable.

BG: The architects rose to the challenge and put the whole glass front on there. That’s all new. So this is like a whole new building onto the original concrete frame. It created that welcoming space that we have there now. It worked out really well. It has generated enough money to create the sheds in the back.

RM: The river has given us the opportunity to have a framework for development. And I think some of our better developers have really used that to their advantage. I’ll single out Barry Mandel in The North End. Those buildings, they follow the flow of the river in very unique ways. And they embrace it with the Riverwalk.

Another thing that sets us apart from other cities our size, we had the buildings to work with to begin with, like the Germania, which has just got a new lease on life. The City Center at 735. The Mitchell, the Mackie, you can’t build stuff like that today.

BG: The preservation movement kicked in here in an incredibly visible way. There was a plan to put the freeway right along the lake front, so you could drive really quickly through that beautiful park. And the preservation community raised up to stop that. And they stopped the freeway in midair. I think it’s the most powerful example of people pushing back and stopping a program. We have a pretty strong historic fabric left simply because there was not so much development here in the ’50s and ’60s that knocked it all down. And the preservation community has provided a firm watch on ensuring that, as buildings have become open, as much effort as possible is taken to try and reintegrate them into the existing fabric.

There is a tension there between some preservationists that want to save everything because it’s old, and the more pragmatic needs of development to make sure the buildings maybe only have a lifetime and that they may not be of future use. But sometimes there isn’t enough time to think through what could happen. The Brewhouse [in the former Pabst complex], fabulous example. What can we use this for? Do you remember that we were going to knock it down. That is one of the most exciting hotels in the city now. Those rooms are magnificent. But we needed time to think about it. The preservation community is the conscience of the city that allows those questions to be asked.

RM: I think we do a better job simply because we’ve got a better stock to work with that remained intact. And, we’ve also got the preservation community here that is intent on making sure that these buildings don’t come down.

BG: We’ve got some good modern buildings, too. The Harley Museum is a good, solid building that reflects its function really well. The Indian Community School. That’s a wonderful project out of Franklin.

RM: Last night, the Daily Reporter had its annual construction awards at the Harley Museum, and that place was packed for that event. It was a Thursday night, so it was also Bike Night. They had all kinds of motorcycles down there. They had a fire going. It was crazy. Beautiful crazy, OK?

And then you look over and you see the Coakley water tower. That, to me, is a new landmark. And you see the Rockwell tower. The Iron Horse Hotel, the Global Water Center, the Reed Street Yards. You see people walking back and forth. The Sixth Street bridge.

I was dog tired. I was wanting to get home. But I stood there, thinking, “Oh my god,”‘ just smiling, because it’s a real urban environment.

BG: There’s a modesty, I think, to architecture here. I don’t think there has been a desire to out-Calatrava the Calatrava. Look at Discovery World. Here is a great neighbor to this building. It wasn’t trying to be the second Calatrava. It’s like, yeah, we’re a neighbor, we can have a conversation. But we accept that some buildings are going to be more noticeable than others. That’s a good neighbor relationship. And I see that in the city.

BG: To me, the biggest success in Milwaukee that nobody even knows about, is actually our public housing. HUD housing was built, and it was deliberately built to be not like real people’s houses.

RM: It was super block public housing, you might as well put up a sign and say, poor people live here, right?

BG: It was not good. They took out the grid, they isolated them. They became ghettos. When city governments realized that, they took up HUD funding and they just leveled the whole lot and built new stuff. Milwaukee didn’t. Milwaukee realized that these houses actually had quite good bones, and they basically pushed the roads back through, reconnected them to the grid, took the houses, stripped them back, gutted them out, put porches on.

RM: Real porches, not these little slab things.

BG: So people had places to sit, and there was security. Put in landscaping, public art. Integrated public housing with market-rate housing. Put schools in. So it basically just took these areas that were, “this is where the poor folk live,” and basically reintegrated them and blurred them with the rest of the city. They’re all around Milwaukee, and you wouldn’t really know about them because they’re part of the city now.

That idea of focusing the public will on dignity and human equality, I think to me it’s always my biggest story when I go out and talk about Milwaukee. And it’s not that well known, because it’s not award-winning star architects. It’s just really good housing stock. But it’s also not what public housing can be, which is drab and isolated.

RM: The old public housing was a compromise along many respects, but most importantly it simply lost sight of the fact that we’re building this for human beings. And so that’s something I spent 18 years on. And I appreciate you bringing it up.

RM: I think we have the best-designed industrial park you’ll find anywhere in the United States. The Menomonee Valley Industrial Center. Because we had design standards. How many industrial parks have design standards?

It’s really based on the old bones of the old Milwaukee Road shops. All that was given up for dead. It was a brownfield, the largest contiguous brownfield in the state of Wisconsin.

The city put about $100 million of its money. There’s about $100 million of state and federal money, and a lot of private money has now gone in. But the private sector has responded by creating thousands of jobs. And the architecture, for the industrial buildings, is really amazing. One of the finest buildings is the Ingeteam building, a company from outside of Bilbao, Spain, that makes components for solar arrays and for wind turbines. Because what they do is environmentally sensitive generation of electricity, they wanted a place to locate that reflected that ethic. And the Menomonee Valley met all of those. Plus, not only did they want to design a good looking building, they wanted to be surrounded by other good looking buildings.

BG: And these buildings win design awards, which is kind of cool.

RM: There’s a lot of notoriety around the big projects and how they came together. That gets the headlines. What doesn’t get the headlines is the public housing developments or the fact that we changed the zoning code now, city wide, not just in the Downtown, to reflect a better palette of materials that have to be used. So that you can’t just throw up junk.

Because it was a lot of junk put up in the ’50s and ’60s, in this city and many cities across the country. It’s interesting, you see it unfortunately with the foreclosure crisis, the city has had to take some houses by foreclosure. But, the interesting thing is, if that was built in the 1930s or before, most of those, and matter how bad they’ve been neglected, we can save them. You can go back in there, you can get owners, because the bones are good, the architecture is good. The craftspeople who worked here, the immigrants, from Germany, Poland, from all over.

But boy, the stuff that was built after the war, once it sits, you might as well tear it down. And when I say that, I don’t say that with any degree of being flip. In some cases it is better for us to tear it down and build new subdivisions than to try and reconstruct the level of what was built there. So I think we stayed away from it for the most part because the city was build largely before white flight.

We didn’t suffer the same maladies that some of the suburban environments suffered. You’ve got gated communities. You go to school over here. You live over here. You shop over here. And if there is any manufacturing, it’s over here, right? And you have to have a car to go everywhere. And our city, and the reason I think the young people, especially the millennials, they see the value proposition. They want to be in walkable environments. They want to be around other people. And urban centers are where human beings gravitate.

But the single biggest challenge we have right now is racial in our region. And the income inequality. And that’s where I think the city, through its built environment – we can mix incomes here if we’re deliberate about it. And the mayor announced this 10,000 [-unit] affordable housing initiative. That’s not designed just to be in the neighborhoods. We want to see a good percentage of that in the Downtown as well, so we have workforce housing Downtown, where we have people who are interacting on a daily basis across a broad spectrum of race, of gender, of income, so that we don’t have the stratification that we have now.

And the poverty in the city is first or second-highest in the United States. Yet, if you just take the 600,000 people in our city and balance them with the 1.4 million that are in the metro area, the average is the net median income in the United States. That shows you how much wealth there is in our suburbs. And why we have the highest income disparity in the United States.

If anything is standing in the way of this city really being a successful 21st century city, it’s that income inequality. But I think we can attack it through the built environment. That’s the beauty of that. Because the city has the structures in place. Now it’s getting the people in the right mixtures.

BG: We’ve got plenty to do. But the indicators of growth are quite positive. In population, in terms of the cranes you see on the skylines. In terms of the people moving back in. There’s still an interest in apartment buildings and condominiums in the Downtown. Growth of population. Once we can solve the retail part – that, I think, is still under discussion. We’ve got a ways to go, but every city is a work in progress.

RM: And we’re keeping more of our graduates, that’s significant. Between UWM, MSOE, and Marquette, we cycle through thousands of people on a four-year basis. To keep more of them here, which we are doing – we haven’t negated the brain drain, but we’ve made significant progress, and that’s encouraging to me.

“Let’s Talk it Out” appears in the January 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop or find the January issue on newsstands, starting Dec. 31.

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