Jeramey Jannene

How to Improve Cathedral Square

What would make Milwaukee's town square better?

By - Aug 23rd, 2012 09:23 am
Cathedral Square Park

Cathedral Square Park during Bastille Days in Milwaukee’s Juneau Town neighborhood. Photograph taken by Dori (

Cathedral Square Park may be as close to a town square as Milwaukee has. The park hosts a wide variety of events, ranging from a weekly farmer’s market to an annual festival celebrating French culture. It’s perhaps best known for Jazz in the Park, its weekly concert series from June through September. Nor does the square lack for historical significance. Before it was a park it was home to Milwaukee’s first courthouse, and the site from which runaway slave Joshua Glover was freed from jail.

The park is a prime topic for conversation today because of a proposal to create a neighborhood improvement district to pay for improvements to the park and, of course, the Sue Black firing, which has focused attention on the fate of all our parks. But before even considering the intricacies of the proposed plan (fear not, I will do so in a future article), I think it’s wise to step back and consider what kind of park we want it to be.

Personally, I would love to see the park play host to as many events as possible, like a true town square. Events that neighborhood residents see as a great amenity, but that also draw in people from across the region. Additionally, and somewhat selfishly as a store owner in the area, I would like to see Cathedral Square serve as a gathering place that’s well-designed to generate activity for businesses in the area, drawing crowds who patronize the restaurants and bars or stroll by the shops within a block or two of the square.

How to achieve that? Constructing a permanent building on the site would help, by replacing the portable toilets and stage that make the park seem a bit second class. Secondly, reconsidering the park surface for the area in front of the stage would be wise, as the grass is frequently worn away by all the event programming.

Long-term plans for the space as a legitimate town square could also include a number of tweaks to how the park interacts with the area around it. Better utilizing Jefferson Street as a part-time pedestrian street would be a wise step. Automatic Rising Bollards could be installed on the edges of Wells St and Kilbourn Ave to close the street to automobile traffic on weekend nights, better connecting the park and businesses on the west side of the street.  Additionally, attention should be paid to how the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist (from which the park draws its name) connects with the park. Installing special brick pavers on a small section of Jackson St. and removing a tree or two could yield a much better connection between the iconic church and park.

Those are my initial thoughts. What are yours? Please share your comments. The resulting discussion could lead to a much improved Cathedral Square Park. It’s a chance to make a good town square a great one.

Cathedral Square Photo Gallery

Categories: Real Estate

11 thoughts on “How to Improve Cathedral Square”

  1. Peter Zanghi says:

    Since Jefferson St. ends at MSOE anyway, it would be great if they could just close that road permanently on the block containing Cathedral Square. Pave it with brick, and have the restaurants and businesses become more intimately connected with the park. The main issue I could see holding this back would be parking for the businesses, but wouldn’t it be great if that stretch was a little pedestrian mall? Not only would it compliment the park and businesses, but would compliment MSOE, as well.

    I do like the rising bollards idea for that part of Jackson St., which should also be paved with brick, at the very least. In addition, rising bollards could be installed to the north of the park on Kilbourne for large events, since they already close it off for Jazz in the Park. It would make things look a lot neater than orange barricades.

  2. Jesse Hagen says:

    It would be really nice to have a bandshell with restrooms, as has been proposed. Personally, I worry that it won’t be maintained as it should, hopefully the Parks dept. isn’t in charge of that.

    Also, better lighting of the pathways at night. Then, an area on the north or east sides of the park that street food vendors are allowed to sell late Thurs-Sat night. It would be a magnet for people already out on the town, with the late hours I don’t see competition between existing restaurants being a real concern.

    Also, I know there is a (rundown,disused,ugly) fountain in the park already, but I would like to see something smaller & nicer put in… we really have a dearth of great fountains in this area.

    ps… lets just say no to a permanent ped mall. look at how busy former Jefferson street is… yeah, thanks but no thanks, keep it for temp. events only.

  3. Jim says:

    I hope they do it right and refer it out to a landscape architect like they did for Erie Plaza in the Third Ward.

  4. Dave Reid says:

    @Jesse I love the vendor ideas, and I think the fountain should be fixed up and put to use!

  5. Dave Reid says:

    @Peter I’m not sure I’m sold on completely closing down Jefferson St., but the ability to shut it down on the weekends and connect the street to the park is appealing to me..

  6. Dave Reid says:

    @Jim Right.. maybe even a competition?

  7. Chris says:

    I agree with pretty much everything stated above. I think Jefferson could indeed be made a permanent pedestrian street (just between Wells and MSOE), with the Taylor’s block having temporary bollards for weekend or event closure. People generally recoil from the thought because, my goodness, what about the parking?!?! But countless progressive cities have proved this fear to be unfounded for affected business owners. To be fair, there have been some epic fails on the concept as well, so it has to be implemented wisely. But with a strong year-round park connected to this one-block stretch you have a viable anchor that could make this a truly special street. As always, refer to what Jan Gehl and associates have been up to in Copenhagen to understand this in more detail. They’ve increased business and pedestrian life by leaps and bounds over the last 3o years.

    I’d also consider reorienting the park such that a band plays on the North side. It solves the park’s weakest component — it’s ill-defined Northern edge. Imagine performance on the North with a bustling streetcar stop on the South. If it all goes as planned, that station will be one the most significant stops on the route.

    For me, Bryant Park in NYC is precedent Milwaukee should be aspiring toward. An amazing, diverse, active, and well-connect public place.

  8. Frank says:

    How about just leaving the park alone. Other than the park along the lakefront, Cathedral Square is the only public green space east of the river in the downtown area. Human beings do need some serenity once in a while. I understand that there are businesses that prosper because of all the festivities, but taxpayers shouldn’t be the ones flipping the bill if renovations do occur. The business owners should put up or shut up. Enough is enough with all these taxing authorities.

  9. judith ann moriarty says:

    frank: you are correct. do all of our parks need to be entertainment centers? if you are looking for a sweet space, check out the little pocket park and the intersection of brady & water st. the site is maintained by a lovely couple who donated their money and time and sculptures, in a partnership with the city of Milwaukee.

  10. Erica says:

    I agree with beautifying the park – updating the fountain, adding more floral areas, more seating. We should just maintain the park to make sure that it looks beautiful year-round.

    I do enjoy the vendors on weekends in the square and closing off some surrounding streets with brick pavers which could serve as the vendor’s selling locale instead of the grass. I love the square, but with all of the traffic the grass gets so worn.

    It would also be nice as well to have functions at the square more often than just the summer. Could we do something special for fall (like Harvest Days) or offer Holiday vendors the first few weeks of December?

  11. Kristine says:

    Perhaps a nice splash pad/fountain – like the one at the river in Portland, OR. Just one look at the splash pad at Bayshore shows how people gravitate to them. However, do it RIGHT so that it is also a beautiful water sculpture.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us