Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Why Rocky Marcoux Is In Trouble

New Common Council leaders want to ax the DCD leader. But why? Few will say.

By - Jul 18th, 2016 03:41 pm
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Rocky Marcoux. Photo by Laura Thompson

Rocky Marcoux. Photo by Laura Thompson

They are circling the wagons to defend Rocky Marcoux, the city’s Commissioner of the Department of City Development.

On Sunday the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran an opinion piece defending Marcoux, and signed by a long list of civic heavyweights, from Milwaukee Bucks President Peter Feigin to Urban League leader Ralph Hollmon, from Greater Milwaukee Foundation head Ellen Gilligan to Marquette University President Michael Lovell. And the list of business leaders signing on to the pro-Rocky manifesto was long: Gary Grunau, Jeffrey Joerres, Sheldon Lubar and many others.

Clearly Marcoux has widespread support, including the backing of Mayor Tom Barrett.

Yet a majority of the Common Council voted, 7-6, with two members abstaining, against reconfirming Marcoux’s appointment. It’s only because Ald. Jim Bohl switched his vote to no and thereby had the right to call for reconsideration at the next full council meeting that Marcoux still has some hope of reconfirmation.

Barrett is said to be working behind the scenes to convert a couple council votes to yes. Meanwhile, the op ed from civic heavyweights suggests Marcoux and perhaps Barrett are lining up all the support they can get.

What’s surprising about the move to recall Rocky is that real estate has been booming in the city; this is arguably a golden age in development for Milwaukee. Adding more surprise is that aldermen Ashanti Hamilton and Bob Donovan, who supported Marcoux’s reappointment four years ago have voted no (Hamilton) or abstain (Donovan) this time around. Meanwhile Ald. Nik Kovac, an outspoken opponent of Marcoux in 2012, has now become a supporter.

Marcoux is the ultimate survivor, having worked with the city almost his entire career. He started at the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee in 1986 and worked there for 18 years, rising to the top post. He became the Commissioner of City Development in 2004 under Barrett and won reappointment in 2008 and 2012. Marcoux is best known for playing the role of super salesman, with high-speed speeches touting all the new development in town.

Four years ago the complaints against Marcoux were led by Kovac and downtown alderman Bob Bauman. Bauman noted that developers like Barry Mandel and Gary Grunau were unhappy with Marcoux. Compared to the days of former Mayor John Norquist, Barrett and Marcoux lacked vision, his detractors argued: “both Marcoux and the mayor are blind to good design,” as Kovac put it.

Another complaint was that Marcoux ran his department in an intimidating fashion. “It’s an East German state over there,” Bauman charged.

That may have explained why Ald. Jose Perez, a former DCD employee, joined Bauman, Kovac and Ald. Tony Zielinski (who has had fits of pique over disagreements with Marcoux) in opposing the DCD head in 2012. But Marcoux still won reappointment easily, by a 10-to-four vote.

This time around the opposition to Marcoux is coming from a different direction entirely. Shortly before the election one source close to Republican PR man Craig Peterson predicted he would support Ashanti Hamilton for Common Council President and they would oppose the reconfirmation of Marcoux. Sure enough, Peterson deftly created an alliance of African American council members, who tend to be liberals, with white South Side conservatives like Donovan, Mark Borkowski and the unpredictable Zielinkski, to elect Hamilton.

Now it’s largely members of that alliance leading the opposition to Marcoux “It’s essentially a power play by the new leadership of the Common Council,” says Bauman. “To some extent it’s power for the sake of power, to let the mayor know there’s a new sheriff in town.”

A Journal Sentinel story has suggested the opposition to Marcoux is because development has been too focused on Downtown and not on other neighborhoods. But the curious thing is that not one black council member has gone on the record to make that argument. (Ald. Milele Coggs came the closest, suggesting she would like to see more attention to the poorer parts of her district.)

That may be because the city has been much more willing to use subsidies for development in less well-to-do-neighborhoods, including spending $35 million in the Century City development in the 30th Street Corridor. Meanwhile the city has tended to oppose subsidies for areas like the East Side.  “Marcoux comes from the Housing Authority,” Kovac says. “He’s consistently been more aggressive and more passionate about development in neighborhoods.”

Frank Crivello. Photo from Twitter.

Frank Crivello. Photo from Twitter.

Two city insiders point to the role of developer Frank Crivello in the anti-Marcoux effort. Crivello had been a big player in real estate in the 1980s, but by the early ’90s he went through a bankruptcy and was convicted of felony fraud for lying to lenders. But Crivello and his Phoenix Investors contributed money to candidates in number of aldermanic races in 2016 and no sooner was Hamilton elected council president than he launched an anti-blight effort with Crivello.

Crivello is said to be allied with Peterson (they both supported Joe Davis for mayor) and has wanted Marcoux to change the zoning for a portion of the Midtown area from commercial to light manufacturing, so he can develop a former Lowes store into a manufacturer of some kind. “Crivello wants to send a message to Marcoux,” says one City Hall insider.

Meanwhile, Marcoux is working hard to lobby his opponents on the council. “He’s an excellent schmoozer,” says one insider who opposes Rocky. “He’s done a full-court press on this.”

His lobbying of the business community is being felt. “We’re getting two or three letters per day from business people and organizations backing Marcoux,” says Ald. Terry Witkowski.

Bauman, who opposed Marcoux’s confirmation in both 2008 and 2012 and this year as well, says he may switch his vote because he is so troubled by the “power play” against the DCD head. That may also be why business people like Granau and Mandel now support Marcoux — that and the fact that development has exploded since 2012. Kovac says he has switched to supporting Marcoux because the DCD leader has listened to criticisms and become more transparent and consistent. “He hasn’t been telling different stories to different developers,” Kovac says.

Perez remains opposed even though the Walker’s Point portion of his near South Side district has exploded with development in recent years; he has denied that his opposition is because of run-ins with Marcoux from back when Perez was an employee in DCD. He says Marcoux has resisted creative suggestions from council members and “is not innovative enough.”

Ultimately Rocky must get eight yes votes; the abstentions by Donovan and Coggs are the same as no votes when it comes to confirmation of appointments. So even if Bauman switches his vote, someone else would have to switch to yes or Marcoux is gone.

All eyes, I suspect, will be on two council members: Coggs, who has twice abstained but expressed no view on Marcoux and Khalif Rainey, who switched from pro-Rocky at committee to anti-Marcoux at the full council.

Of course, Hamilton is presumed to have visions of some day running for mayor. All those civic leaders backing Marcoux could make the council president reconsider his vote.

13 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Why Rocky Marcoux Is In Trouble”

  1. Allison says:

    Great article Bruce.

    I guess I’d be fighting to keep my job too if I was Mr. Marcoux.

    $140k/year plus full benefits, a pension and the security of city employment. He knows he’ll never find that deal out in the real world. Plus the glamour and schmoozing and speeches with the beautiful people in Milwaukee might all come to an end as well.

    So I can see why he would want to keep his job. Also, the divide on the City Council is fascinating as you have the balance of power possibly moving away from the east side, white liberals (aka Urban Milwaukee bloggers) more towards central city and South side folks. Should be interesting to see how it all plays out. Personally I hope they find someone new just for the sake of change. If any city needs a few new ideas and a few new, dynamic leaders, it is definitely Milwaukee

  2. Vincent Hanna says:

    Lots of snarky comments Allison, but not a word in terms of whether or not you think he is good at his job. And what do you mean by the real world? His job isn’t legit because it’s not the private sector? Your post reads like divisive nonsense you hear on talk radio. Sad.

  3. Virginia Small says:

    Unlike cities with mayors who view themselves as “urban planner in chief,” Milwaukee has not had such a mayor for 12 years. Tom Barrett admits that urban planning is not his forte or interest. Current and former urbanist mayors include the legendary Joe Riley of Charleston, John Norquist, Madison’s Paul Soglin, RT Ryback of MPLS, and Cleveland’s Frank Jackson, who, like Norquist, has an urban planning degree. Jackson is now proudly showing off recent achievements like the transformed Public Square.

    Rocky Marcoux has no UP credentials per se, but as Commissioner he gets to call those shots. Yes, stuff is getting built but is Milwaukee keeping pace with peer cities more evolved in their urbanism? Marcoux can use urban planning lingo but seems into randomly hatching deals, giving away the store to the Bucks and some businesses and developers, trashing urban fabric (like Sydney Hih, etc,) — not a big-picture approach.

    I’ve heard more “visionary” statements by local developers and others than from Marcoux about what a city needs to thrive. Vision does not have to entail anything dramatically imaginative. It can simply be a consistent mindset about a city’s evolving landscape based on what has worked elsewhere, whether in design, public-realm enhancements, community engagement or widespread access to amenities that make neighborhoods livable. Even if some council members may also lack specific awareness about good urbanism, they can see that most neighborhoods away from the Lake are languishing, which contributes to defeatism in many places. Beyond politics, alders may simply be expressing frustration about that.

    How much credit does Marcoux deserve for downtown’s boom and how much could be coattails from previous re-envisioning of the riverfront and Third Ward? How much is part of a national trend of downtowns being cool again? How is Marcoux’s seat-of-the-pants salesman style shaping and defining Milwaukee? Are knowledgeable DCD planners sometimes overruled by whim or other factors?

    Are Marcoux & Barrett helping make Milwaukee a strong and financially sustainable town? Time will tell.

  4. merelyfaith says:

    Years ago at a public meeting where Rocky Marcoux spoke about a proposed luxury development in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, I asked a question about housing for the people who might provide services to the residents; people who could not afford to purchase and upgrade existing housing or rent already upgraded properties. One of the DCD staff came to me in the crowd and told me stop asking questions and to never ask questions like that at a public meeting. Ugly.

  5. So illuminating how things get twisted around by politics.

    Rocky Marcoux came to my studio several years ago and talked for more than an hour about his plans for Milwaukee. Back then, according to Rocky, the problem was Norquist had only been interested in downtown development. He explained Barrett was going to be what Norquist was not. Instead of the RiverWalk they were going to do the 35th corridor. And so on, really strange to say the least.

    I thought to myself, this guy does not have clue about how cities develop, which is one reason why developers were critical of Rocky and Barrett. The other reason was that Rocky was no Peter Park, without whom the process of getting something built in Milwaukee became more jury-rigged and haphazard, thus less intelligent and more politicized.

    The best any mayor can do is cultivate and enrich the soil, roads for example, which creates the possibilities that are then filled in, sometimes much later, by the market. Politicians are not in charge of the way citizens want to spend their money.

    So it is ironic, to say the least, Rocky is now being criticized for the real-estate development in Milwaukee that is concentrated along the Lake east of the freeway. That wasn’t his idea. It’s the market. And that is maybe why real-estate developers have switched sides. They are making money.

  6. AG says:

    It is crazy to see politics cast such a nasty shadow over a time period of great growth and success for Milwaukee. Anyone who thinks the growth is solely downtown is sorely mistaken and should go watch Marcoux’s presentation to the ZND committee about all the things that have happened or are happening in other parts of the city. Heck, if they just look south while driving on 94 and see the transformation that took place in the Valley!

    Many great deals have happened with Marcoux as a key cog in the wheel. He has been an important part of many deals and this city will take a huge step back if he is forced out. His opponents will regret getting what they want…

  7. Virginia Small says:

    I agree with Tom B. that politicians cannot control how and where private citizens choose to invest their money as investors, homeowners or even renters. However, politicians do control how public money is spent. That often includes public subsidies for private development (whether wisely or not) and for public infrastructure such as roads and parks (which can spur private development).

    Mayors (and development officials) do influence how cities evolve, including how they physically take shape. They use the bully pulpit or promote specific projects, especially ones in the public realm.

    Influential mayors often acknowledge specific thought leaders or being inspired by what they’ve experienced somewhere. Millennium Park did not spring from the head of Richard M. Daley one day. It was the culmination of many years of working to make Chicago a more beautiful city after he had an epiphany in Paris. Eventually he pitched the park and enlisted input by many, including multiple designers/artists–and donors.

    Milwaukee has evolved due to the IDEAS of many leaders, including Socialists such as several Zeidlers, Emile Seidel, Charles Whitnall, Daniel Hoan etc.; as well as pragmatists, urban renewal proponents, New Urbanists, etc.

    Frederick Law Olmsted designed three significant early parks and Newberry Boulevard and also directly influenced the county’s parks system, which reflected his concepts of naturalistic settings and linking scenic “parkways.” As John Norquist advocated downtown’s Riverwalk, he credited both San Antonio’s Riverwalk and a “riverfront promenade” idea floated by architect Alfred Clas in 1904. Tom Barrett promotes ideas about environmental sustainability, which has translated into green roofs, energy-efficiency efforts, etc.

    Ideas don’t need to be original to have impact. They just need to be relevant, achievable and have people touting them. We should continually ask our mayor, development commissioner, council president and alders to share their guiding ideas about how they want to make ALL of Milwaukee livable and appealing and what they will do to make that happen.

    All government and politics involves personalities and power plays. However, compelling ideas and shared goals can create consensus and break through partisanship, fiefdoms and inertia. Individuals and grass-roots efforts also help shape cities by promoting ideas that sometimes reach a tipping point. That’s how we got recycling, bike lanes–and Three Bridges Park.

  8. AG says:

    Virginia, I’m a bit perplexed. Specifically what part of the DCD commissioners job do you think can be improved and in what ways do you see a replacement commissioner out performing Marcoux? Saying you want “vision” and “ideas” sounds great, but what specifically does that mean? What tangible things are you looking for that we don’t have? What are you willing to give up to get that?

  9. John Casper says:

    Bruce, many thanks.

    Interesting thread.

  10. Virginia Small says:

    @ AG, thanks for asking. Urban Milwaukee is one place where issues about good urbanism and other topics are pondered in depth. I am not proposing a replacement. I am asking questions of ALL our top leaders’ visions with respect to citywide development. I’d be interested in hearing perspectives on urbanism from the mayor and all council members–not just the development commissioner. They are all charged with making decisions about these issues and we can reasonably expect them to have and share their ideas in broad terms, not just about specific projects.
    .
    As Bruce wrote in this article, the “vision” issue has long been raised in articles on UM and in a recent lengthy Milwaukee Magazine profile about Mayor Barrett. I also speculated about why the council is divided in supporting the commissioner, the subject of this article. Only council members have a vote. It seems positive that alders are engaging in trying to have more widespread attention paid to citywide development and to have more direct communication with DCD. Productive collaborative efforts are needed to move any city forward.

    In terms of specific ideas, I support ideas of New Urbanism (commonly discussed here) and Strong Towns, http://www.strongtowns.org/, which discusses a range of strategies that promote fiscally healthy municipalities.
    I would like to see more long-term visioning for all of Westown that works to address major problems created by too many megaprojects, which have discouraged good urbanism. Those decades-long challenges are the purview of the DCD, but can be considered by all civic leaders. Citizens can play a role but it requires leadership by city planners since much of the land is publicly owned. I would like to see more specific visions and priorities established about all public spaces in the city, starting with greater downtown (DCD is smartly doing that with 5th St.). The public realm is every bit as important as the private realm and they are interdependent. I would like to see more discussions about how stonger connectivity can be created between such spaces.

    I would also like to see more direct community engagement about the city’s future. When former city planner Peter Park spoke recently at MU, he said community engagement was absolutely essential in successful urban planning. He said that cities that do this consistently, like Austin and Denver, see positive outcomes. It’s done here with some projects but has not happened with some very crucial high-profile developments, including ones involving the public realm. It’s often up to alders to encourage that process.

    One positive trend in Milwaukee is that numerous grass-roots neighborhood initiatives have initiated and ultimately created improvements, especially to the public realm, by working in concert with city officials. It’s open to all of us to invest in improving our city or town.

  11. AG: what Virginia is advocating is DCD hire a planner, like Peter Park. Milwaukee is operating without a high ranking official who knows the field and can apply the knowledge gained about urban development over the last half-century.

  12. AG says:

    OK, I see. I think I misunderstood… I thought you were saying a new commissioner would be the source of the vision him/herself. If I understand you correctly, with Tom’s help admittedly, is that you’re not advocating for replacing Marcoux but instead for the city to find someone who has that vision and lead us in exploring a unified direction for the city that brings modern and cohesive urban planning to the forefront. I’m not sure I totally agree/disagree, but at least I have a clearer understanding of where you are coming from.

  13. Virginia Small says:

    Tom B & AG; The issues are complex. Peter Park worked in tandem with John Norquist, a leading voice in New Urbanism, and both have mentioned their shared visions. I do not know DCD staff well enough to assess their knowledge of urban planning (and it seems many are highly credentialed). In any setting, staff and advisers generally have as much influence as supervisors and top leaders accord them.

    Grass-roots-promoted “visions” have also been driving positive change within public and private development in Milwaukee. But that can take years of dogged effort to make an impact, and again, ultimately they must be supported by receptive decision makers. Fortunately, sometimes that is happening. That’s a story (or two) in itself.

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