Jeramey Jannene

Tear It Down – US Cellular Arena vs Bradley Center

By - May 19th, 2010 09:44 am

Fast forward a few years and assume that the Bucks were able to land a new arena in Milwaukee. Let’s assume that arena was built in the Park East lot north of the Bradley Center (what today is a large piece of gravel where a freeway once stood), and that the tenant list includes the Milwaukee Bucks, Marquette men’s basketball team, huge concerts, and Milwaukee Admirals. Milwaukee enters into a unique situation of having three arenas in a row. Being that Milwaukee doesn’t have the need for three facilities in excess of 10,000+ seats in the region, let alone next to one another, which do you get rid of?

The arenas was they would be aligned in the assumed future world.
The arenas as they would be aligned in the assumed future world.

US Cellular Arena

The US Cellular Arena, previously known as the MECCA, would be the oldest of the three arenas. Seating a max of 12,700 people, the arena is also the smallest of the three. It’s smaller size allows it to host mid-sized events with ease though, including tenants such as the UW-Milwaukee men’s basketball team and Milwaukee Wave. Compared to the Bradley Center it is severely lacking in amenities, with the concourse definitely showing the building’s age with bathrooms off the main-level and limited concession areas. The arena also lacks luxury boxes or any sort of club. It lacks an attached parking garage, but is adjacent to many. It posses a smaller footprint than the Bradley Center, is located directly to the east of the Milwaukee Theatre, and is across the street from what in our future world is known as the Frontier Airlines Center. Along with the Midwest/Frontier Airlines Center and Milwaukee Theatre it is operated by the Wisconsin Center District.

A recently floated idea of an on-campus arena for UWM would lower the utilization of the US Cellular Arena dramatically, but the leave of absence that UWM placed Athletic Director George Koonce on shortly after the idea was announced seems to indicate that egg isn’t about to hatch. It’s also possible that, with or without UWM calling “The Cell” home, the Milwaukee Admirals still might find their way back to the stadium they once called home, as might the Arena Football League’s Milwaukee Iron.

Even with a new arena in the neighborhood, the US Cellular Arena seems poised for business as usual, if not growth.

Bradley Center

The Bradley Center, a gift to the state from Jane Petitt in memory of her father Harry Lynde Bradley, it seats a maximum of 18,600 people for basketball. With sight lines built for hockey (the Petitt’s tried to land an NHL team in Milwaukee), the stadium may still be an ideal home for the Milwaukee Admirals even after a new stadium is built. The Admirals, however, rarely require use of the upper seating bowl, similar to the arena football team, the Milwaukee Iron. Keeping a stadium to use half its capacity seems extremely unlikely. It seems most likely that the Admirals would be forced to move into either the new stadium or their previously mentioned old home. The Bradley Center, despite drawing over 2 million attendees to over 150 events a year, would likely see the least use in a future with a new arena.

Is it possible that only the Bucks would move to a new arena and everyone else would stay at “the Fortress on Fourth”? It’s possible, but it’s unlikely. The hockey sight lines and lacking amenities (stadium restaurant(s), more clubs) make the Bradley Center unattractive to Marquette as well when a new venue is available. Presumably entertainers will play where they can make the most money, and it seems that a new arena should be able to out-earn an old arena for a host of reasons including acoustic quality and amenities.

Could the Bradley Center land a new tenant if a new arena opens? UWM seems unlikely to move their basketball program to a bigger arena, as they don’t routinely push the capacity of the US Cellular Arena. The same goes for the Milwaukee Wave.

Would an NHL team move to Milwaukee to become the primary tenant at the Bradley Center? That seems extremely unlikely, despite the fact that there are multiple teams in the NHL either in dire financial straits or actively looking to move (Phoenix Coyotes being first on the list). The biggest deterrent is that multiple studies have now shown Milwaukee to be overextended when it comes to supporting professional sports, the most recent coming from Bizjournals. The second biggest deterrent will be the fact that a team is unlikely to move to a market where there is a 25+ year old stadium with known revenue-generating deficiencies. Even if the Bucks were to leave Milwaukee, it’s hard to see a NHL team coming.

The Bradley Center does have some positives going for it. The state of Wisconsin, the stadium’s owner, recently committed to a two-year capital project to modernize the arena with $5 million in funding that will go towards a $23 million renovation. The project will ultimately include replacing seat cushions (the same ones are in place since the building opened), upgrading the HVAC system, replacing the ice rink system, roof repairs, and other improvements. The most visible improvement from the project might be the new scoreboard that will be put in place next year, replacing the horribly out-dated one the arena currently has. The new scoreboard is something that would likely be moved to a new arena when one is ultimately built. it’s unclear how many of the renovations will actually happen before planning for a new stadium becomes a big issue.

Redevelopment Options

The two existing arenas.

The two existing arenas.

Supposing either building was to be demolished, what could be gained from the land they occupy?

The Bradley Center has a much bigger footprint than the US Cellular Arena, and therefore provides a much greater opportunity (although the Park East project has shown having lots of available land might not be the best short-term blessing). A large infill project could be undertaken to develop an urban, mixed-use neighborhood between the two arenas, similar in scale to what the Mandel Group is doing with The North End or what happened at Bayshore Town Center. A single-use retail project could also happen with shops, restaurants, and bars built on the former Bradley Center land, this seems far less desirable from an urban planning standpoint of trying to make a more active downtown. Or the land could go the way most of County Stadium did and simply become surface parking, but that seems extremely undesirable.

The US Cellular Arena land could be redeveloped, although the scale of the redevelopment is much smaller. The smaller scale could mean the land is redeveloped faster (much as the City’s, as opposed to the County’s, parcels were in the Park East). First-floor commercial space is a given in that location, but what goes above it is far from certain. It’s unlikely top-tier Class A office space will go on that site, nor would it make sense to put simply a parking garage in (unless another major redevelopment like the Journal Sentinel parking lot and buildings happened). Given the constraints of the site, it seems more likely that a few moderate sized apartment buildings would go in with the commercial spaces.

Final Thoughts

When all is said and done and a new arena is in place, it appears to make the most sense to demolish and redevelop the Bradley Center. If left standing, the arena would become a black hole downtown, with quite possibly zero tenants. The arena, despite being 35+ years newer than the US Cellular Arena, is near or at the end of its economically viable life. It was built to serve an NHL team that never came, and lacks the quality seating and amenities that its peers like the Conseco Fieldhouse, Target Center, and United Center possess. Even with renovations it will be a dated arena. The 60-year-old US Cellular Arena on the other hand continues to be a viable home for an indoor soccer team and mid-major college basketball team, even if a new arena were to be built. Small improvements could go a long way to keeping the US Cellular Arena economically viable for medium-sized tenants for the foreseeable future.

Bring on the Rockwell Automation Arena.


7 thoughts on “Tear It Down – US Cellular Arena vs Bradley Center”

  1. SS says:

    The future of the Bucks needs to be locked down in Milwaukee first. If Herb Kohl died, the team would almost certainly leave the city. As you say, there are already too many under-utilized venues downtown, so I can’t see any scenario of building a new one any time soon, unless someone donates the whole thing like Petitt did. Then again, Kohl was generous enough to build UW a basketball arena, maybe he’ll build one for the Bucks and lock them into a long lease.

  2. Jeramey Jannene says:

    @SS – Right, and I’m assuming in my article that it was locked down.

    Worth noting on Kohl’s donation to UW, the Kohl Center is not an NBA caliber venue and would have many of the same revenue generating difficulties the Bradley Center has. It would take a substantially larger donation to build the venue that is needed.

  3. Peter says:

    Plus Kohl has already addressed this issue (him donating a bunch of money for it) and it sounds like he doesn’t want to. Read the two paragraphs in this article right above the ‘People are hurting’ section of the article:

  4. Ethan says:

    What about looking south for the site of a new arena?
    People have been looking for a way to revitalize the Grand Avenue Mall and the surrounding area for a decade. Build the new arena south of the Plankinton Arcade.
    The new facility would be connected to most of the hotels in the city and the Frontier Airline Center by skywalk and it would be located on the primary mass transit routes. You could even add a skywalk connecting it to the Intermodal Station which would be just a few blocks from the back of the new arena. The facades of the existing buildings could remain, maintaining the historical architecture while the interiors could house restaurants, shops, apartments and condos.
    I realize that several blocks of Michigan St. would have to be closed and traffic diverted, but I think that would be a small price to pay to help create a downtown sports and entertainment district that is fully incorporated into the heart of the city.

  5. cgleiss says:

    The great thing about demolishing the Bradley Center site is that you can create two entirely new blocks for development while eliminating some of the most unfriendly facades in the city. I think that the notion of just a few apartment buildings sells the site short of its full potential. Between two arenas and next to the convention center is a perfect draw for hotel use (Milwaukee is sorely lacking a convention hotel), the proximity to MATC and Marquette could create demand for student residential space, the ground floors clearly should be devoted to retail use and the proximity to Old World 3rd, the River and Manpower not to mention easy connectivity to I-43 all improve the desirability of this site from an office standpoint. This could be two full blocks of 12+ story development with structured parking integrated into the development to serve the project and ‘Rockwell Automation Arena’ parking.

  6. Jason says:

    I’m surprised that this topic hasn’t generated more discussion because it could have such a huge impact on the city we love. It’s staggering to imagine the impact this could have. Having been to 20-25 or so stadiums, I regrettably think Miller Park failed to achieve the “wow factor” and it lacks some great features that some stadiums/arenas have. A very fortunate group should be tasked with doing an exhaustive tour of stadiums/arenas and tracking the cool features to each. Regardless of where we put a new stadium, if it is a dud, we’ve lost a golden opportunity. If we are going to build it, let’s build a facility that is recognized nationally as an architectural wonder that fans love, creates an intimate environment, and acoustically, gives us a hometown advantage. This is not just an issue of sports; it is the opportunity to build something that offers us civic pride much like the Quadracci pavilion designed by Calatrava.

  7. Dan says:

    Re-arrange the deck chairs as you like, but Herb Kohl is mortal, and the Bucks will be out of here.

    You’ve glossed over the most significant obstacle to the “if we build a playground downtown, people and money will come” line of wishful thinking: ECONOMIC REALITY–i.e., “multiple studies have now shown Milwaukee to be overextended when it comes to supporting professional sports.”

    The metro market is $56 Billion short on PERSONAL INCOME, and it’s in the middle of a long-term economic contraction that is not expected to be recovered from locally until 2015–maybe.

    As the BizJ notes, their study “was based on each area’s total personal income (TPI), the sum of all money earned by all residents in a year.”) Don’t expect that to change any time soon, and take a good look at the denial in the commenters on that article. Their idea that Milwaukee can’t be compared to bigger markets because “it’s NOT FAIR! they are bigger!” shows the profound provincialism of WI and how people don’t grasp what competition in a national market is, let alone an international one.

    Simply stated, the problem is not too many stadiums and seats but too few people with money. Put the horse in front of the cart. Jobs, Jobs, Jobs–preferably ones that produce good and services wanted internationally.

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