American Family Field’s location is terrible. My mom has been complaining about it since they decided to build Miller Park in County Stadium’s parking lot. There’s nothing to do after the game other than to leave, or sit in one of 16 parking lots as you sober up or wait for your rideshare and then leave.
The Brewers’ NL Central rival Cardinals essentially control a city block in the heart of St. Louis. On game days, the neighborhood is packed with Redbird fans; at the Ballpark Village — which carries the relatively boring slogan “Where Sports and Entertainment Meet” — there are watch parties, festivals, three bars and five restaurants. For 81 home games a year and throughout an annoying amount of deep playoff runs, Cardinals culture and St. Louis culture are synonymous.
Why don’t the Brewers have a Beer District?
Matt Rinka, one of the architects behind Deer District, agrees with my mom on the stadium’s location. “I think most people would agree the stadium is in the wrong place,” he tells me. But that doesn’t preclude “the right place” from being built up around the stadium.
Robin Palm, who lives Washington Heights and works as a planner for the Village of Mount Pleasant, has pitched the concept of the Beer District to the Brewers.
If the Crew is interested, the team isn’t showing it. And to pull it off, the governor and Department of Transportation would probably need to get on the bandwagon… fast.
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WHY IT COULD WORK:
Palm describes Beer District as essentially the same thing as Deer District, just outside AmFam instead of Fiserv. While there’s less natural foot and vehicle traffic around the baseball stadium than there is Downtown, tearing down another underutilized highway and interchange and replacing them with an entertainment district, perhaps with an emphasis on craft breweries, could bring in people and dollars.
It could also be a much needed connector for Milwaukeeans across socioeconomic lines.
Beer District could build off Milwaukee’s already strong tailgating culture and fuel it, while also not taking away parking revenue from the Brewers. It could also fight traffic crises by encouraging the use of public transport in the city: consider taking the bus from Beer District during the day to Summerfest or State Fair Park at night. There’s already talk of extending The Hop to Potawatomi Casino; bringing it all the way to the stadium would only be another 1½ miles.
Plus, there’s room to do it.
PARKING AND KOMATSU:
Komatsu Mining Corp. is already moving from next to the stadium to the Harbor District and the far west side. That is leaving a pretty much empty 45-acre site right next to the stadium unused; the Brewers or a local government could buy that, or partner with friendly developers to achieve the same endgame.
An idea like this has long been mulled. As the Milwaukee Business Journal reported in 2019: “West Milwaukee officials see the long-term opportunity to convert Komatsu Mining Corp.’s plant near Miller Park into a year-round entertainment and hotel destination for people visiting the stadium.” The Komatsu site has already been rezoned to allow for an entertainment district. Andrew Weiland of BizTimes Milwaukee wrote in 2018: “(West Milwaukee) Village officials hope to see someone eventually come forward with plans to redevelop the Komatsu site. Who should it be? The Milwaukee Brewers, that’s who.”
Palm argues there’s too much parking outside AmFam Field already.
There are more than 12,000 parking spaces across 16 lots comprising nearly 3.3 million square feet, or more than 75 acres. That’s more parking spaces than there are outside EPCOT in Disney World. Getting rid of some of those spaces wouldn’t be much of a loss, considering they’re never full anyway and an existing lot or two could be replaced with multi-story parking garages; another idea considered years ago but rejected.
The first in Palm’s broad four-point plan is converting at least some of the stadium’s parking lots “into a grid of true city streets allowing development and walkability.” Developing the Komatsu site would be the longer-term phase four.
But here’s the problem: The state is moving toward rebuilding the Stadium Freeway Interchange, for some reason. If that plan is carried out, Beer District is dead in the cradle.
THE FREEWAY PROBLEM:
Back Downtown, the underutilized Park East Freeway was torn down in 2003. If that hadn’t happened, there would have been no room for Deer District. And if there hadn’t been room for Deer District, the Bucks may have actually fulfilled their threat to relocate five years ago.
“The teardown of the Park East Freeway opened up all that land for economic development,” says Palm, while noting it still took nearly 20 years for development to take off.
“The Park East Corridor took a while to develop, but it’s going to be a great connector to the northern neighborhoods,” adds Rinka.
Visit Milwaukee estimates each Bucks playoff game last year brought in some $3 million in revenue to the city, more than $55 million in total. That money, and the immeasurable positive attention, doesn’t arrive if the freeway was still in the way.
For something like Beer District to achieve its potential, the Stadium Interchange needs to go like the Park East before it.
Some, like Palm and MilMag alum Dan Shafer — who is now the independent journalist behind The Recombobulation Area — argue the interchange should be downsized significantly from the current plan, which is nearly the scale of the sprawling Zoo Interchange 3 miles west.
“The reason why American Family Field doesn’t have any foot traffic is the basic design, the layout. It’s a bunch of highways and a parking lot,” Palm says. “But if they reconstruct it with the plan of the triple-decker interchange, it’s all going to be highway ramps. Nobody wants to have a good time under a bunch of highway ramps and all that noise.”
Highway 175, “The Stadium Freeway,” and the adjacent Stadium Interchange are stupid in part because it was never even finished in the first place, abruptly becoming surface streets at both its northern and southern ends. The terminus in play in the Beer District conversation is just 700 feet north of National Avenue.
Freeway teardowns are very rare in the U.S. But “all the ones that have been torn down have been successful,” Palm tells me. He mentions the removals of freeways in Oakland and San Francisco after the earthquake that famously postponed the 1989 World Series. With it gone, a waterfront boulevard was put in, allowing more foot-traffic and interactions between diverse populations.
“If you understand history of automobiles and freeways, when the freeways were put in in most communities, it really destroyed a lot of neighborhoods and destroyed connectivity of neighborhoods,” says Palm, who became interested in urban planning while working in Iraq, got his master’s from Virginia Commonwealth University and resettled with his wife in her native Wisconsin five years ago. “Freeways are certainly convenient. … If they’re underutilized, communities have to look at tearing them down.”
While “Interstate 94 is a vital part of Milwaukee,” says Palm, “Highway 175 goes nowhere.”
When I say "replace 175 with a boulevard"— Robin Palm, AICP (@BourbonPlanner) March 21, 2022
I do not mean like this.
This creates almost no new value. https://t.co/C4F07PIV4g
Shafer wrote, in a column that was part of an award-winning series last year, that the $1.1 billion Stadium Interchange reconstruction proposal, “which would reconfigure the stadium interchange and widen a 3.5-mile stretch of the highway from six to eight lanes right in the middle of the city, is not a good plan.
“The priorities for the project are completely upside down … Battling the effects of climate change is going to necessitate a future with fewer cars on the road; supporters of this project have a stated goal of more cars on the road, polluting our air and water and contributing to a global catastrophe. … Addressing congestion in the region isn’t even a legitimate concern, as Milwaukee is in the bottom 10% for commute times among major cities in North America.”
Getting rid of the Stadium Interchange could also reduce segregation in Milwaukee, the most racially segregated city in America.
The Bucks tout the removal of Park East and Deer District as a connector of Downtown to the majority-Black north side neighborhoods. Beer District could achieve the same west-to-east. The neighborhoods west of Highway 175 are mostly white; to the east, mostly Black and Hispanic.
“Already existing as a boulevard south of I-94,” Shafer writes, “the stretch of Wisconsin Highway 175 north of the interstate is a physical barrier that is unnecessarily dividing this segregated city … Isn’t that the type of unnatural boundary that cities like Milwaukee should be looking to remove? Shouldn’t the least segregated neighborhoods in the most segregated city be places to invest in?”
Get rid of the boundary and provide a space to congregate, while also increasing non-vehicular connectivity along paths like the Hank Aaron Trail, and inequality likewise could decrease.
Milwaukee Magazine reached out to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and Gov. Tony Evers’ office about its thoughts about downsizing Highway 175 and the Stadium Interchange. We received no reply.
“Cities,” says Rinka, “should certainly be pushing and supporting — both from the planning standpoint and the financial standpoint — to be part of major sports facilities, because to make the most out of these sports facilities, you have to have these kinds of spaces.”
Rinka notes the drone shots of 85,000 ecstatic fans packing Deer District during the 2021 NBA Finals broadcast internationally are better advertisements than TV commercials, billboards in airports and pop-ups on travel websites could ever be. “That’s such a psychological win for the whole state, for the entire city and the community. A marketing win. It put Milwaukee on the map as an amazing place.”
Sports entertainment districts are a way “to capture the before and the after,” Rinka says. Right now, the Brewers “capture the before with the tailgating.” But they fail at the after.
The idea of Beer District is “intriguing” and “fantastic,” and would be a “smart” investment for the Brewers, says Rinka.
THE BIG TICKET:
Beer District would have more potential for game day traffic than Deer District and Titletown combined. The Bucks have 41 regular season games a year. The Packers have eight or nine. But there are at least 81 games played at American Family Field every spring and summer.
Beyond that, Beer District could receive at least some traffic the rest of the year. That’s an improvement on how there’s no one coming and going now besides the grounds crew, office staff and whatever Bernie Brewer does in his chalet.
Have you ever eaten at the Restaurant To Be Named Later (formerly TGI Friday’s) in left field when it wasn’t game day?
It was sunny and almost 60 degrees in Milwaukee on Sunday. But when Palm was walking around the stadium, there wasn’t a soul at Helfaer Field (the mini-baseball field within the sprawling parking lots) or playing on the adjacent playground.
Easily the best part of the whole AmFam complex , and hardly anyone is here on a 50 degree day, because who would ever think to go in the middle of 100+ acres of parking lot.— Robin Palm, AICP (@BourbonPlanner) March 20, 2022
I’d suggest tripling this. pic.twitter.com/ypEHUkrQDd
Sure, building Beer District could dip into ticket sales a hair, since some fans might prefer to dine and drink at its restaurants rather than pay for game tickets; there’s lessons to be learned from the Bucks failing to secure sell outs for all playoff games last year during their title run while the Deer District was packed.
But the 365-day nature of Beer District could create more fans than a few nosebleed ticket sales ever could. How? Imagine stopping for lunch in January at a Brewers-themed brewpub in the shadow of their home stadium. Might that get you excited for spring ball? Inspire you to pony up for an MLB.TV subscription? Remind you to buy a four-pack of tickets for your brother’s birthday?
Plus, the Brewers would be continuously taking in revenue via the leases paid by privately operated businesses within Beer District.
The owners of the Brewers are considering asking for another $100 million from taxpayers to pay for improvements to the 21-year-old stadium. Like the Bucks before them, Brewers fans may be facing a give the team taxpayer dollars or they’re going to leave scenario. (Because apparently even multimillionaire/billionaire sports club owners, whose franchises are increasing in value year over year, think they need the government’s help too.)
Unlike most other sports franchises, the Brewers don’t really have an actual investment in their stadium. They don’t own it. AmFam Field is still owned by Southeast Wisconsin Professional Baseball Park District, the special government entity that collected $605 million in sales taxes from five counties from 1999 to 2020.
If the team walks away, to move to a different city or to build a new stadium elsewhere, the Brewers wouldn’t be stuck with the lost investment of an abandoned concrete coliseum. The district, and thus taxpayers, would be stuck with it.
Palm thinks a Beer District could prevent a $100 million charge to taxpayers. If Beer District could be a year-round moneymaker for the Crew and Principal Owner Mark Attanasio, it could make the owners more willing to pay to improve the stadium without taxpayers’ help.
So, are the Brewers considering something like this?
“They (the Brewers) have to decide if they want building revenues from 365 days a year, or parking revenues for 81 games a year,” Palm says.
Besides sharing it online, Palm sent his plan to Brewers President of Business Operations Rick Schlesinger and Tim Sheehy, chair of the stadium district. Palm said that Sheehy told him “It’s an interesting idea” but “it’s up to the Brewers.”
Schlesinger told Palm in an email “Thank you very much for sending this to us.” But when I reached out, asking if the Brewers were actually considering Beer District, a spokesperson replied, regarding the email from Schlesinger to Palm, “Rick acknowledged acceptance of his email. Nothing more than that. ”