How Urban is Bucks New Arena?
Not so much. The biggest problem with the new Bucks arena design is the ground floor.
In May of last year, the Bucks unveiled a video titled the “Milwaukee Ripple Effect” about how a new arena would catalyze the revitalization of downtown Milwaukee. A lofty goal, and something that seems almost a necessity when considering the hundreds of millions of private and public dollars that will go into the new arena. The team’s master plan for the area reflects that vision, envisioning a mix of use from office space and bars to apartments and a grocery store. But will the new arena bring vibrancy to a new neighborhood and create a “ripple effect?”
Not as it’s currently planned; pedestrians will find it as much a dividing line as they do today’s faceless BMO Harris Bradley Center. Still, a couple design changes could go a long way to improve things.
The renderings unveiled yesterday show a bold looking building that appears as if its been designed from the second floor on up. The designs show plenty of windows and design elements on the proposed building, exactly what’s needed to break up a building that occupies nearly two city blocks. Unfortunately they’re just all so high off the ground that even nearly seven-foot-tall Giannis Antetokounmpo won’t see them when he’s walking by.
Yes, the BMO Harris Bradley Center is ringed with blank walls today and is an anti-urban colossus, but the new arena shouldn’t be judged solely against the old one. If the new arena is to have a “ripple effect” as yesterday’s press release again proclaimed, it’s going to want to follow basic tenets of good urban design. It needs to be not just the largest gathering space Downtown, but also an inviting piece of the urban fabric when it’s completely empty.
Think of the best streets to walk down in Milwaukee. N. Broadway in the Historic Third Ward. E. Brady St. on the Lower East Side. The S. Kinnickinnic Ave. around E. Lincoln Ave. in Bay View. The one overarching shared trait they have is they’re activated on the ground level. The most obvious way to achieve this is with retail stores, but a million other possibilities abound from public art and street lights to varying building materials.
The new Bucks arena has almost no activation on three sides. If a great, urban neighborhood is expected to emerge around the new arena, let’s not build a black hole in the middle of it.
Ignore the Social Media Reactions
Yesterday, public reaction to the building, which dominated social media for most of the day, was centered around the wave structure that wraps much of the building. The wave is the signature design element that draws much of the polarizing feedback, although most responses seem to be tinted by the commenter’s political opinion about the project’s controversial public financing.
But focusing on the wave misses the most critical part of the new facility, the first floor. As interior renderings show, and as the BMO Harris Bradley Center works today, event attendees are going to spend little time on the ground level once they’re inside. Most will enter and head straight to the upper floors via stairs, escalators and elevators. The end result of such a setup is a design that features vibrancy-killing blank walls on the ground level.
We can all argue about design, a subjective process. What really matters is the more objective measurement of how activated it is on the ground floor.
The East Side is the Best Side
The entire east face of the building seems well conceived. Floor-to-ceiling windows line the eastern facade, while will help draw visitors to the Live Block on to the arena. The design suggests the Bucks arena business plan is for fans to stroll through the Live Block, purchase things and be drawn into the facility. A perfectly rationale plan for the team trying to maximize revenue. But what about the other three sides of the building; they look left out.
Where’s the Skywalk? And Other Rendering Oddities
Renderings are designed to sell the project, and its best features, so it’s important to look for what’s not shown. For instance, a missing skywalk and parking garage. The new parking garage, to be located immediately north of the facility along N. 6th St, will be used by thousands every game. Documents on the arena deal mention a skywalk connecting the garage to the arena, yet nowhere in the renderings does such a connection exist. What affect will that have when it’s built?
In almost every new perspective in the renderings released yesterday, strategically-placed trees block the view of the building’s ground level and soften its blankness. As any Bucks season ticket holder can attest, the games are more often played in the dead of winter. Trees are virtually non-factors at those times. I’ve walked from East Town to the Bucks games on many cold nights and what does make the walk more appealing is the activated spaces such as Upper 90 Sports Pub and the lights in Cathedral Square Park. Street trees can help, but the design needs more ground level activation.
Most notably missing from perspectives rendered is what’s certain to be the ugliest side of the complex, the southwest corner. There you’ll find what appears to be a one-story building matching up with the blank wall that runs along the W. Highland Ave. pedestrian street.
Compromise is Necessary
Arenas are inevitably not perfect urban buildings. Their sheer size and unique uses requires a substantial amount of loading dock space that in most cases can’t be well hidden. It’s unreasonable to expect the arena to be completely wrapped in street-level retail. Likewise, it’s unreasonable for the Bucks to think the arena could be three-fourths covered in blank walls.
Hidden behind those blank walls is in most cases not the arena concourse area, but instead back-of-the-house arena functions. The walls hide storage, control rooms, kitchens, locker rooms and more. It’s not like the team could simply replace the blank walls with windows and have a visually inviting scene for pedestrians to walk by.
The plans eventually call for redevelopment of nearby areas (the site of the BMO Harris Bradley Center and the Park East), but can future residents be reasonably expected to walk by loading docks and other windowless buildings along N. 6th St? No. Find a way to do some simple interventions to activate those buildings. Those trellises and vines shown in the rendering aren’t going to cut it.
W. Juneau Ave. is the biggest problem. It’s the longest side of the building and has virtually no windows at street level. The new Barclays Center has a Brooklyn Nets team store to mitigate this situation, but the Bucks are presumably going to locate that in the Live Block. The Verizon Center in Washington D.C. has a number of first-floor tenants, but that area of Westown likely can’t support a number of new stores at this point.
What about a small television studio or two for nearby Milwaukee Public Television (MPTV)? A number of non-profit or government institutions in the area could likely use the street-front space and make the area feel more active. If new apartment buildings are going up in the area, and The Brewery continues to expand just up the hill, there is no reason the western half of the building couldn’t support some kind of small restaurant. Even a Subway sandwich shop would provide a source of activity. If all else fails, turn to the most sustainable Milwaukee business, a tavern.
Four Simple Fixes
What interventions can be easily inserted into the building? A number of examples are strewn about Downtown.
- When US Bank rebuilt their parking garage behind the US Bank Center, they fought back against the city’s desire to have first-floor commercial stalls built into the garage. A compromise was reached by having display windows that highlight student work from the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. The arena could similarly display team merchandise in displays along the Juneau Ave. frontage.
- In 2014, when Interstate Parking took over the former Milwaukee Athletic Club parking garage at 777 N. Milwaukee St. they partnered with NEWaukee and Reginald Baylor Studio to add a substantial number of automobile-themed lights along the north N. Milwaukee and E. Wells streets. While not terribly engaging, this was a low-cost intervention that enlivened the street. The new arena could use similar design techniques, perhaps going as far to include concepts from Reginald Baylor‘s design for a new Bucks court.
- The UWM Panther Arena includes the Wisconsin Athletic Walk of Fame, a series of plaques featuring Wisconsin sports legends. It’s a neat idea in theory, but stuck in the no-man’s land that is N. 4th St. The Bucks could honor their own legends with digital displays built into the new building to create a more engaging facade.
- Many people hate it, but it’s hard to deny the success of the Bronze Fonz on the Milwaukee RiverWalk. Tourists are drawn to it, and locals can use it as a wayfinding point. It’s a little early to make statues of Giannis and Jabari Parker, but the team could commission some more temporary art pieces that could be installed around the exterior to liven up the area.
The arena will soon make its way to the City Plan Commission as well as the Common Council’s Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development committee before being voted on by the full Milwaukee Common Council. From there, it’s off to the mayor’s desk for a signature. Once that’s complete the Bucks will head to the city’s Development Center at 809 N. Broadway to pull permits, after which they’re clear to begin building. It all sounds like a labyrinth of government to work through, but it’s likely to all happen it the next two months. This provides some time for the Bucks to reconsider and make sure the proposed design has a true ripple effect on the area.