Michael H. Carriere
Op-Ed

Bucks Will Privatize a Public Space

Team will take over 4th Street and can even charge fees to events held there.

By - Jun 10th, 2016 10:57 am
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The portion of 4th Street between West Juneau Avenue and West Highland Avenue is northeast of the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Photo by Adam Carr.

The portion of 4th Street between West Juneau Avenue and West Highland Avenue is northeast of the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Photo by Adam Carr.

The Milwaukee Bucks have made little effort to hide the fact that they want to make a big impact in the former Park East corridor. In addition to a new arena, the franchise has called for the creation of a “Live Block Plaza,” a covered pedestrian plaza adjacent to the arena. Now, the team has put forward plans for a “Public Plaza,” a space on North 4th Street between West Juneau Avenue and West Highland Avenue meant to connect the Live Block Plaza and the Bucks’ arena.

The construction of the Public Plaza is only possible due to the recent decision to close a portion of North 4th Street to automobile traffic. In exchange for this development, the Bucks have offered to build this plaza at no expense to the city. Sounds like a nice quid pro quo, yes?

Well, not really. The City of Milwaukee owns the property to be developed, and it has entered into a lease with the Wisconsin Center District (WCD) to create the synergy needed to make this project happen. Yet the WCD, a government body created in 1994 to oversee development in downtown Milwaukee, has turned around and subleased the property to the Bucks. And how much are the Bucks paying the city for this 30-year lease? Not a penny.

At the same time, the lease for the plaza makes it clear that this “public” space can be closed for “special events.” These events can happen “only on a temporary basis,” but there is no indication given as to what “temporary” means here (Days? Weeks?). The lease also makes it clear that the WCD may charge “a reasonable admission fee” to people attending such special events. Again, there is no clarification as to what a “reasonable” fee might be. Moreover, third-parties can receive approval to use the space for private events. This not only means that a public, city-owned street can be closed to Milwaukee residents at any time; it also means that private actors stand to make money off of a public space – a space that should remain accessible to all people at all times.

Yet the terms of the lease are even problematic when discussing the “public” aspect of the plaza. According to the lease, public use of the space “shall be limited to normal and customary pedestrian and recreational uses appropriate for a public plaza of the size and scope of the Public Plaza,” while “any commercial activities or operations by members of the public not expressly allowed by WCD” will not be allowed in the plaza.

Perhaps even more troubling, the lease explicitly prohibits a series of “inconsistent” uses of the space. These uses include “loitering, unauthorized vendor or commercial activities or other types of uses that may constitute a public or private nuisance.” The only authority listed to decide when use of the space becomes “inconsistent” is the WCD.

It is obvious that this lease represents the further privatization of once-public urban space. This plan primarily benefits one actor: the privately-owned Milwaukee Bucks. What is even more insidious about such plans is the way they transform a once-public urban space into something decidedly non-public and non-urban. Such a strategy strips the city of more than a route of transportation. It removes the openness, unpredictability, creativity and vitality that go hand-in-hand with truly urban, public spaces. Such plans are no way to redevelop downtown Milwaukee.

Michael H. Carriere is an associate professor at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, where he teaches courses on American history, public policy and urban design.

This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee.

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10 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Bucks Will Privatize a Public Space”

  1. Fat Dude says:

    Um, might wanna fix that title…IJS…

  2. Dave Reid says:

    @Fat Dude. Yikes. Thanks fixed.

  3. “Perhaps even more troubling, the lease explicitly prohibits a series of “inconsistent” uses of the space. ”

    Well, that is what cites are…. inconsistent. That’s what we love about cities and why people move to suburbs. More consistent.

  4. Milwaukee Native says:

    It sounds like plazas (or even parking lots) connected to any tax-paying commercial venture will be way more “public” than this Bucks Plaza that citizens are funding and the city keeps pretending will be public.

    Memo to city officials: Who wrote the lease’s mystifying and fluffy prose: “public use of the space ‘shall be limited to normal and customary pedestrian and recreational uses appropriate for a public plaza of the size and scope of the Public Plaza'”? Especially given that the Bucks (or WCD) can charge entry fees and remove people at will. By definition, that’s what private property owners are allowed to do. Paying for land and paying taxes gives private owners the privilege of controlling and restricting access to a property.

  5. Former Bradley Center employee says:

    From my experience of living and working down town near parks east, that area of 4th street receives little traffic. The only time it’s busy is when there is an event at the Bradley Center, and then only for parking.

    The point of this article largely seems to be to raise a stink about removing a sparsely used street that the Bucks plan on making a downtown destination. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I will respectfully disagree with you.

    Removing a rarely used public space to create something exciting that is private does not concern me in the slightest. On In fact, it gives me new hope that Milwaukee may actually be taking steps to improve our city rather than keep it as is.

    Well done Milwaukee!

  6. John says:

    More complainers.. you have people coming in, spending A LOT of their own money and completely transforming a dead zone of downtown that has been vacant since the park east came down.

    Appreciate what they are doing for the city. If they spend their own money to develop blighted, underused areas they have every right to make a profit off of it.

  7. Al Lindro says:

    What a huge disappointment. My whole life has been centered around going to the great public space on North 4th Street between West Juneau Avenue and West Highland Avenue in order to do whatever people do when they go there to hang out in that beautiful slice of heaven. Now what? Am I supposed to go over to Bradford Beach, or down by the South Shore Yacht club, or mingle with the diverse citizens and visitors in the Third Ward, or maybe have a cookout in one of the public parks with my friends, or go to a Beer Garden somewhere?

    All I can say, as I wipe the tears back is “Farewell vibrant and yet soothing public space known as North 4th Street between West Juneau Avenue and West Highland Avenue; you really were a happening place and we will struggle to get along without you.”

    Of course, some will still go over to North 4th Street between West Juneau Avenue and West Highland Avenue and TRY to have a good time, but why? It’s doomed forever. Maybe I should move to Oak Creek or Grafton or East Troy or something. That would show them!

  8. Bill Sell says:

    Sarcasm always welcome. Laugh Laugh.

    Seriously all the goals of the Bucks could be provided without giving away the land. Simple use of the City’s permitting process would allow a closed street for events.

    If we need a year-long permitting process the City could devise that. But if the control of the downtown land is now held private, well, pay the property taxes like the rest of us. And make a contribution to the most challenged part of city living: the property taxes which pay for fire, water, police, access, snow shoveling, public health.

    We give all that and more to a well funded business? It’s a precedent that is ominous. Thankfully, we still have those diverse citizens of the Third Ward, Bradford Beach, public parks (with cookouts), visitors (the horror!), and, now Bier Gartens.and we pay property taxes to make these public spaces possible.

    Why is no gift to the Bucks ever “too much”? And who will come begging for free land next?

  9. Al Lindro says:

    I’m glad you appreciated the sarcasm. Actually, as a downtowner myself I can easily walk over the to that designated area, but I don’t recall ever doing so other than to get to a Bucks game.

    I agree that there could or should be a quid pro quo when a private concern is takes over land that was previously public. I don’t know that it happened in this instance, but if the Bucks were asked to, in return, contribute to some serious upgrading and then ongoing maintenance of specific public park space elsewhere, especially in the central city, that would be a good outcome. To boost their PR they could then be identified as “sponsor” (example: “Bucks Water Playground @ Washington Park”, or “Bucks Basketball Complex @ XYZ Park”) and that would be a potential win/win proposition.

    I’m just a bit tired of the whining and griping about the Bucks. I see no evidence that they are going to be anything but solid citizens and responsible neighbors, but admittedly I have not been looking for such evidence. Seems to me they are investing in building a potentially winning team that might someday bring joy to many of us in all demographic categories who would be proud to be associated with a middle market sports franchise success story. Would be good for the city’s psyche (and economy).

    As for future “others” seeking similar treatment, I’m not very concerned. This kind and scale of project is not something that’s going to happen over and over. Furthermore, do I remember correctly that there is language allowing the City to reclaim the space if certain conditions are not met? Maybe I dreamed that, but if it’s accurate I think that’s an important consideration in the transaction.

  10. Milwaukee Native says:

    John, #6: “you have people coming in, spending A LOT of their own money and completely transforming a dead zone of downtown that has been vacant since the park east came down.

    If they spend their own money to develop blighted, underused areas they have every right to make a profit off of it.”

    I know this has been the spin to sell this bad deal. However, the Bucks owners will spend $150 million, and it’s estimated they will receive nearly that much just from the arena naming rights. They will pocket ALL revenues. Taxpayers will spend an estimated $400 million for the arena–and get bragging rights in return. The Bucks were given 30 acres for free, about 20 purely for speculation. They talked the city into forfeiting a paid-off income-producing parking garage so taxpayers can build a new one from which the Bucks owners will get half.

    However, NBA fans can indeed be gratedul that they get to continue watching games, even of a lackluster team. But the taxpayer investment will never get fully repaid, based on endless research about sports venues. And the Bucks net investment will be minimal at best.

    Also, vacant land (a result of removing a freeway) is different than “blighted” land. Park East has been developing incrementally, as city planners believed it would, starting 12 years ago. (A city-owned lot on 4th & Wisconsin has been vacant for 30 years. Should the city just give it away?) Park East land has always been prime, not blighted. It’s surrounded by several civic anchors, a thriving Old World Third Street and new development just north on 4th.

    Most arenas are dead zones when there are no events. Even with a raft of new bars 4th St. may only have somewhat more activity except on event days, unless they somehow work some serious magic. But the Bucks can’t lose since they will forever be able to play with the free land as they please and in their own time.

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