Patti Wenzel

Downtown development plans seek connections

By - Jul 7th, 2010 04:00 am
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It’s been ten years since Milwaukee developed a comprehensive plan to update and uplift its downtown. Since then we have seen the revitalization of the Third Ward, the development of the River Walk, construction of the Intermodal Station and the razing of the Park East Freeway.

With those projects completed but many others left untouched, city planners have unveiled an updated 2010 downtown plan which addresses areas lacking according to downtown residents and workers, specifically retail, transit and employment.

The Third Ward has been removed from the defined borders of downtown, which is now roughly enclosed by I-43 on the west, Walnut Street to the north, St. Paul Avenue to the south and Lake Michigan. This area is broken into eight different catalytic projects focused on making downtown Milwaukee the “State’s downtown” and a destination for visitors.

Project managers Greg Patin and Robert Harris are focused on returning the grandeur to Wisconsin Avenue and connecting different areas of the downtown to each other in spirit and geography.

“We want to create a sense of space in the downtown area,” Patin said. “We want to connect Wisconsin Avenue to the lakefront, to the Third Ward, to the lower East Side. We want this plan to increase foot traffic and encourage greater density in the center of the city.”

Three of the eight projects include developing a link between the Third Ward and Wisconsin Avenue, conjoining Kilbourn Avenue with MacArthur Square and updating the area surrounding the Intermodal Station.

The Third Ward has seen major improvements over the last decade with the addition of unique retail outlets and restaurants, the construction of Milwaukee Public Market and the reconfiguration of parking on Broadway. These improvements, along with a boom of condominium units, have made the Third Ward the place to be…until you wander north.

Artist rendering of Broadway Connection improvement, courtesy City of Milwaukee.

If you choose to head toward Wisconsin Avenue you are greeted by dark parking structures tucked under I-794, empty lots and storefronts and cement as far as the eye can see. City planners want to change that image by carrying the vibrancy of the Third Ward farther into the downtown area.

The “Broadway Connector” plan would add decorative lighting, public art and green space under the freeway to make it pedestrian friendly. New uses and retail would be encouraged in the Mackie, Mitchell and Button Block buildings between Clybourn and Wisconsin. And a new hotel or entertainment venue would be sought for the corner of Broadway and Clybourn. All of this would create a connector throughway between downtown and the Third Ward.

Another area Patin discussed is the reconfiguration of Kilbourn Avenue into the boulevard envisioned by the city’s original planners. The street currently resembles a wide divided highway with traffic speeding past the hotels and venues fronting the road. The planners want to make the roadway west of the river more pedestrian friendly with narrower lanes, smaller intersections and boulevard plantings,  and extend it into MacArthur Square.

Artist rendering of improvement Kilbourn Avenue, courtesy City of Milwaukee.

While the details are sketchy, Patin’s planning document shows the redirection of the current Kilbourn Avenue freeway off-ramps to 7th Street, which would allow the avenue to gradually rise to the level of the park. Retail development would be sought for the newly-extended road and the park given an update to encourage use by nearby workers.

In addition, a parking structure would be integrated into new development at the corner of 6th and State, allowing for the eventual removal of the MacArther parking garage. Finally, all of the intersections on Kilbourn would be decreased in size, easing crossing for pedestrians.

With entertainment areas in the downtown improved, transporation is another area of focus for the planners. The Intermodal Station at 5th and St. Paul would become a center for all transporation in the area, with a plan to move the Milwaukee County Transit System’s Michigan Avenue garage works into the post office space when it is abandoned.

The post office site could also contain parking ramps for commuters making use of the trains and buses, along with supporting retail such as rental cars and food outlets. More parking would be planned for the area under I-794 and landscaping and signage would provide a welcome mat for travelers.

A showpiece pedestrian bridge is envisioned to arch across St. Paul and recommendations are planned to increase streetcar and bus stops in the area for tourists and commuters.

The “Station Project” would connect the transporation hub to Wisconsin Avenue and the Third Ward and the development along 6th Street. A pedestrian bridge is also planned between the Intermodal Station and the Harley-Davidson Museum, the Iron Horse Hotel and the proposed UWM School of Freshwater Sciences.

Artist rendering of improvements in the Station District, courtesy of City of Milwaukee.

The 2010 plan is an extension of the 1999 plan, which was successful in areas, but ultimately fell short in others. Goals to rehabilitate the retail offerings on Wisconsin Avenue and to develop the vacant land north of downtown have not been realized due to lack of political consensus or private capital. Because of those shortfalls, some of those goals remain in the 2010 plan with slight updates.

Hopefully the city council will realize the importance of completing these projects to restore downtown Milwaukee to the destination it needs to be in order to attract jobs, residents and dollars.

The Milwaukee City Council will consider adoption of this plan in September. In the meantime, the public can share their ideas with planners through the Milwaukee Department of Development.

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