Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

City Profile: Milwaukee by UrbanMilwaukee

[ Here’s another installment in my series of city profiles, in which a blogger in a city I don’t write much about showcases their town and blog for you. Today’s entry is about Milwaukee, and comes to us from Dave Reid of UrbanMilwaukee – Aaron. ]

New Milwaukee is still a great place, on a great lake.

“A Great Place on a Great Lake.”  That’s how Milwaukee’s catch line used to read, and its actually more true today than it has been for a long time in Milwaukee.  Like any city, Milwaukee has its share of problems, pockets of crime, including too much poverty, struggling schools, and unfortunately segregation.  And like all former “rust belt” cities, it has seen decades of de-industrialization decimate its inner city.  But Milwaukee is seeing signs of life, and it is evolving into New Milwaukee.   This evolution leans on Milwaukee’s natural resources, its neighborhoods, and has been driven by urban, environmental, and historical movements within the city.

Milwaukee’s lakefront, its greatest natural resource, is a gem that is utilized by all residents, and unlike other cities its lakefront is in a large part free of significant commercial development.  Literally, acre after acre of parkland lays out a beautiful front door to the city.  In 2001 the Milwaukee Art Museum opened the iconic Quadracci Pavilion, designed by starchitect Santiago Calatrava

The Calatrava wing at the Milwaukee Art Museum

The MAM, as it is often referred to, has become the iconic symbol of new Milwaukee, and has been regularly featured in TV commercials from Porsche to Lipitor opening up the world to new Milwaukee.  The lakefront is also home to Summerfest, the world’s largest music festival, which energizes the entire region during the ten day festival.  Recently, efforts to recognize and capture the value of the water in Lake Michigan have bubbled up as a potential new direction for Milwaukee’s brand and economy.  Milwaukee’s place on Lake Michigan has always been a resource for residents, but now may play a role in Milwaukee’s future direction.

High rise on Milwaukee’s East Side

Along the lakefront lie many of Milwaukee’s most popular, and vibrant neighborhoods.  Just northeast of downtown, the East Side has long been a center of culture and entertainment.  It is the home of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, multiple nightlife districts, condominiums, single-family housing, and affordable apartments.  It truly is a mix of wealth and youth.  East of downtown, East Town, saw multiple high-end lakefront condominium developments built in recent years, and has a high density of residents through apartment and condominiums.  It is also home to the Milwaukee School of Engineering, is one of the most walkable parts of the city, and has a vibrant upscale nightlife scene.  Southeast of downtown, the Third Ward, despite being cut off from the lakefront by I-794 and the Summerfest grounds, has transformed itself from a warehouse district that had seen years of decline into Milwaukee’s high-end shopping, nightlife, and entertainment destination.

Renovated warehouses in the Third Ward

Numerous warehouses were redeveloped into condominiums and apartments, and multiple mixed-use buildings were added to the district. Despite the recession, the Third Ward is one of the few areas that still has on-going construction of new housing.  This neighborhood is home to the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, which has played an important role in the area’s rich gallery and art-related boutiques.

This is just a small sampling of Milwaukee’s near-downtown neighborhoods. There are numerous great neighborhoods all across Milwaukee, from Bay View to Riverwest and Sherman Park to Silver City that each bring an uniqueness to Milwaukee.  Beyond Milwaukee’s great neighborhoods, a slow but steady movement has pushed Milwaukee forward over the past twenty years.

New Urbanism, or more aptly the back to the city movement, got rolling in Milwaukee under former Mayor Norquist’s leadership, and has played a significant role in downtown Milwaukee’s rebirth.  Milwaukee was able to remove an aging freeway spur, the Park East Freeway, that served few, and blighted all of downtown.  The removal of the Park East, which was controversial at the time and remains a point of contention today, was supposed to spark redevelopment of the vacant land, and although it has been slow to develop projects such as the Aloft Hotel, the North End Phase I, and The FlatIron condominiums have been built in the redevelopment corridor.

Additionally, Mayor Norquist pushed forward the downtown Riverwalk project which has slowly been built-out ever since.

Section of the Milwaukee Riverwalk

Along the Riverwalk spots of vibrancy and urbanity have sprouted up helping to bringing people and life back to Milwaukee, particularly in the Third Ward.  Milwaukee’s downtown population has seen such strong growth that it now has 15,000 residents, which is higher than many similarly sized cities.  This growth, and the growth of many near-downtown neighborhood’s was in part due to the application of New Urbanist principles in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee, like most former “rust belt” cities, has vast acres of land siting largely vacant with decaying industrial facilities scattered about that are filled with toxins and unknown substances limiting redevelopment opportunities.  The redevelopment of these sites, referred to as brownfields, is a challenge to any city and certainly has been for Milwaukee, but the city has had award-winning, nationally-recognized successes in this area.  Just north of downtown along the Milwaukee River the area known as the Beerline B used to contain tanneries, breweries, coal piles, and other industrial uses, while today an entire new neighborhood has sprung up on the former brownfield site.  The nationally recognized redevelopment of the Menomonee Valley, the former Milwaukee Road Shops site, took a blighted, toxic, 140-acre site, and has returned it to the tax rolls, brought new jobs to Milwaukee, and cleaned up a polluted site in the middle of Milwaukee.  Company’s such as Derse, Charter Wire, Ingeteam, Helios, Palermo Villa have taken up residence and, entertainment options such as the Potawatomi Casino, the Harley-Davidson Museum and Miller Park also lie within the valley.

As part of the redevelopment, Chimney Park, the Hank Aaron State Trail, and significant storm water retention systems were constructed, which create a curious juxtaposition between industry and parkland.  Today the next major brownfield site being redeveloped in Milwaukee is the 30th Street Industrial Corridor.  This is a critical site for Milwaukee because at one time it was the center of jobs for the inner city, and today is a mostly abandoned, decaying industrial site.   The city has acted quickly and has already landed its first tenant, Talgo, who will build high-speed rail cars for cities across the U.S. and bring 125 jobs to Milwaukee.  The redevelopment of sites like these is key to Milwaukee’s future, and has already begun to reshape its landscape.

The adaptive reuse of existing building stock plays a role in brownfield development, but it is also important within the historic preservation and green movements in Milwaukee.  Milwaukee is actively involved with preservation and green efforts in its partnership with local development firm Zilber Ltd to redevelop the former Pabst Brewing site, just west of downtown, into a new mixed-use neighborhood.  The project, known as The Brewery, is attempting to be one of the earliest LEED-ND certified neighborhoods in the country.

Renovated Building #10, formerly the Boiler House, at the Pabst Brewery

Not only is the intent to save and re-use as many of the existing structures as possible, but it is also to achieve as high a green certification in the process.  The district has already seen the opening of the Blue Ribbon Lofts apartment building, Best Place tavern, a Cardinal Stritch University facility, and Zilber Park.  Both the green and historic preservation movements are in a real way adding a new neighborhood to Milwaukee.

Another urban concept that is beginning to shape the face of Milwaukee is urban farming.  On Milwaukee’s northside Will Allen’s Growing Power has become a national model in urban farming.  Growing Power provides high-quality affordable food to the community, and a learning experience to Milwaukee’s youth.  This concept has spun off businesses such as Sweet Water Organics Fish Vegetable Farm, and sparked a renewed interest in neighborhood gardens throughout Milwaukee.   Looking to literally take it to the next level Will Allen is proposing to build a 5-story vertical farming building, that would be a groundbreaking effort in its own right.

It’s not to say that Milwaukee has become the new Portland of the Midwest, far from it really.  In fact downtown Milwaukee still has far too many acres of surface parking lots, lacks a truly regional transit system, and retail still struggles to make it in the core.  But Milwaukee is in the slow process of evolving from its post-industrial collapse into a new Milwaukee.

Highlights from UrbanMilwaukee

For more on Milwuakee, visit UrbanMilwaukee. Here are some highlights from the archives:

Dave Reid is the co-owner of UrbanMilwaukee.com, sits on the board of directors of the Friends of Lakeshore State Park, and works to encourage the living an urban lifestyle. UrbanMilwaukee.com’s goal is to “Champion Urban Life in the Cream City” and we strive to do so each and everyday.

Topics: Economic Development, Sustainability, Urban Culture
Cities: Milwaukee

6 Responses to “City Profile: Milwaukee by UrbanMilwaukee”

  1. Milwaukee Resident says:

    It does not sound like Dave Reid has ever been west of the river, where the majority of the city is located. This is an article about Milwaukee’s nearly allwhite east side.

  2. AF says:

    I am a big fan of Milwaukee. On of the most interesting parts of town is the near south side, around National Ave and Mitchell St – home to the 2nd largest Hispanic population in the Midwest.
    As a Chicagoan, I will without reservation say that I like Milwaukee’s lakefront better. It’s more natural, lacks a monster 8-lane freeway, and has some nice topography to it.

  3. wkg in bham says:

    great tour and thanks.

    But where are Fonzerelli’s Garage or the Cummingham Hardware Store, Arnold’s Drive In or Schotz Brewery?

  4. the urban politician says:

    Anyone who has not been to Milwaukee really needs to make it out there. It is exactly the kind of city that is making the right decisions and, step by step, procuring a future for itself in the deindustrialized future. Also, unlike a lot of other midwestern cities, it has benefitted enormously from Hispanic immigration, which has acted to keep a great deal of its prewar building stock essentially intact.

    Being so near Chicago, of course, doesn’t hurt. But I have observed with good confidence that Milwaukee has created opportunities for itself outside of just increasingly being a member of what will eventually become the Milwaukee-Chicago-Joliet-Michigan City Metropolitan conglomerate.

  5. Wad says:

    I’m surprised no one made this snark yet.

    Does living in The Brewery mean achieving the highest possible social status for hipsters? :)

  6. Another Milwaukee Resident says:

    Milwaukee Resident is correct. Mr. Reid ought to be asked how much time he has actually spent in the rest of the city. Like reactionary exurbanites who fear the city, he will not personally venture into some of those other “nice neighborhoods” he disingenuously mentions in passing unless he has what he feels is the protection of someone else’s car, since he eschews car ownership himself.

    While certainly a valuable source of insight into the downtown area and development issues east of the freeway, UrbanMilwaukee.com represents a 90s neoliberal semi-revanchist vision of Milwaukee that pines for the good old days of Mayor Norquist.

    Not only is this dated and unimaginative; it demonstrates the lack of regard or simply the lack of belief that anything can be done for 500,000 residents who do not live in the areas it is easy to like and praise–so long as th lack of quality jobs, schools and public safety is not mentioned.

    Milwaukee’s high crime rate, massive police budget, significant poverty, astonishing minority unemployment, and incredibly low educational attainment for white and non-white residents alike are some of the key structural indicators of disease that is being fought with denial and a residency requirement for public sector employees. This closed loop is in a slow fiscal death spiral that is frequently talked up as a positive thing by reference to the comparatively doomed County, school system, or other cities like Detroit.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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