At any given point in the day – rush hour, midday, the long hours between 2 and 5 p.m. – about half of the people that walk into the Downtown Transit Center have come to use the bathroom. Some are homeless and have come to wash up in the sinks. Others, if it’s summer, are just sitting on one of about a dozen rows of metal benches, listening to a portable radio and absorbing some of the city’s coldest air conditioning. None of these uses are regrettable. If you’re desperate for a john, finding one at the eastern end of Michigan Avenue, a short stroll from the U.S. Bank Center and the Northwestern Mutual campus, is like coming upon an oasis in a concrete desert where all of the shade trees say “customers only.”
Still, for a building whose construction cost $10.3 million in 1992 and monopolizes one of the city’s – nay, state’s – choicest real estate parcels, one might have expected more. And prevailing expectations are certainly rising, with plans for the Couture skyscraper and a redesign of the Lakefront Interchange, efforts that would topple the Transit Center. Nobody sane has argued it’s a memorable building worth preserving. “There’s a strong interest in getting some development on that site,” Brian Dranzik, Milwaukee County’s director of transportation, says of the 909 E. Michigan St. address. But what of the benefits of a facility that, under different conditions, might have become a Grand Central Station for city transit? “There’s been less of a need for a facility of that size,” he says. “[A replacement] could be a lot more modest than what we have now.” Perhaps a shelter and “relief station” located on the East Side would suffice, Dranzik adds.
Four Downtown Flyer routes and eight others pass through the Transit Center, which explains the dismissive rumors that the facility is just a place “where buses turn around.” The building’s back half is a garage that can hold a couple dozen buses but only plays host to two or three at a time on most days. Traveling at no higher than 5 mph (the posted limit), the buses do indeed reverse course as they pass through a tunnel in the facility and plunge back into Downtown. Drivers stopping for breaks have 4 to 10 minutes – depending on the length of their route – to relax in the shoebox-sized room located a couple doors down from the main terminal. Inside, one finds his and hers restrooms, a table, a microwave, four chairs and, just maybe, a moment to rest.
Why a recent visitor was inspired to sing “Nothing, nothing, nothing!” in the terminal atrium is debatable (she’d only stopped in to use the bathroom), but there’s no missing the contrast between a building that’s some six stories tall and has a passenger count only slightly larger than that of a typical bus stop. The Milwaukee Journal noted as much back in May of 1993. “Several hundred riders a day were expected to pass through” the Transit Center, said an editorial, however, “Only a handful of riders come through the station daily, and few make use of the 140-seat waiting area.” Not much has changed. The MetroLink Northwest Express line that won the county a federal grant to build the Center shut down in 2002, and the Parks Department now rents out the upper level’s Harbor Lights Room for parties and weddings. Planners originally envisioned the space as a great hall for transit meetings and events.
Outside the room, displays curated by the Milwaukee County Historical Society tell the history of public transit in the city. The timeline’s end coincides with the Transit Center’s construction, when services still seemed to be expanding with each year. The future looked bright, but increases reversed, ridership peaked, and one side of the facility’s clock tower froze at about 6:30 – which, if you assume the hands stopped in the afternoon, was right after rush hour.