Michael Horne

Does Lakefront Still Lack a Vision?

Panelists at Discovery World conference debate plans and opportunities for Milwaukee's lakefront. A report with photos.

By - Oct 29th, 2013 01:32 pm
The Couture. Rendering by Rinka Chung Architecture.

The Couture. Rendering by Rinka Chung Architecture.

It’s about time. With The Couture and the NML headquarters building, Milwaukee finally has two significant projects “that will happen.”

Those were the words of architect Matt Rinka, speaking before a sold-out audience in “A Vision for Milwaukee’s Lakefront,”at Discovery World, Monday, October 28th, 2013.

We better make the most of it, said fellow panelist Mike Mervis, who admitted he’s getting a bit more direct and impatient (if such a thing is possible) since retiring from the Zilber Co., where he still shows up to work every day. The first new office building downtown in 12 years is underway at The Brewery, a Zilber development. It is five stories. Not a big thing, but something.

“What’s the next big thing?” he asked, looking ahead. “It seems there is a decade between them since the ’50s. … But I do not know what the next play is.”

Mervis says Milwaukee’s fits-and-starts approach to consolidating its lakefront and downtown development is due to a “lack of political leadership and lack of ‘Rah-Rah’ … We do not have that ‘Rah-Rah’ factor.”

Joel Brennan and Dave Schlabowske. Photo by Michael Horne.

Joel Brennan and Dave Schlabowske. Photo by Michael Horne.

Joining Rinka and Mervis on the panel were architect Allyson Nemec of Quorom Architects, Discovery World head Joel Brennan and Dave Schlabowske, communications director of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, who writes the Bike Czar column for Urban Milwaukee.

The moderator was Jeramey Jannene, president of Urban Milwaukee, who set the tone by addressing his first question to the capacity crowd.

“How did you get here tonight?” he asked,  calling for a show of hands. Bicycle — 4; Bus — 2; Walk — maybe a dozen. Drive — 80 or 90.

Driving (and parking) remained a theme throughout the evening. Brennan suggested that as things stand today, visitors who care to take their kids to both Discovery World and the Betty Brinn Children’ Museum across the street are best off driving and paying for parking twice.

“Few Betty Brin visitors will risk traffic to go to Discovery World,” he said, and who should be surprised, since the intersection as it now stands has six lanes of traffic and two turning lanes. It’s a challenge to cross on a bicycle, not to mention with toddlers afoot.

Rinka says that is to change, with “vast improvements to pedestrian access in the plans,” and he hopes the new Couture building will help to develop a “retail corridor starting at the lakefront. … Multiple properties can work together,” such as the Couture and the NML Tower, this year’s “Big Things.”

New NML Skyscraper from the waterfront.

New NML Skyscraper from the waterfront.

“This will affect what the people around the country will think about Milwaukee, by creating a stimulating lakefront that not only drives the economy but drives culture.”

Nemec, whose Quorum Architects, founded in 1993, specializes in adaptive reuse, said a historic building “is one you want to save in 50 years. Development builds more development.” She called for “making downtown Milwaukee a place we all want to be in, no matter how we get there.”

Brennan added that NML is “certainly in discussions to purchase” O’Donnell Park[ing Garage]”, a cliff-like barrier to the lakefront. He added that it would be great if there were “better opportunities for public transport, but 80 percent to 90 percent of the people came by car tonight.”

Schlabowske said, “it’s time to say ‘no’ to more parking. It is too easy to park in Milwaukee, too easy to drive.”

“Congestion means success,” Rinka offered, hopefully.

Mervis said he reckons the city “can sustain current parking while expanding development.”

Moderator Jannene then asked Rinka a pointed question about the Couture. “Why does it call for 700 parking spots. How can we get 70 fewer?”

The Couture’s architect said, “We started out at 900 cars. The reality is we do need parking.” The building itself will have “pedestrian alleys cut through the building, through the parking lot.”

The point is that the Couture and the NML buildings will be built to last (it is hoped), unlike the current NML structure which, at just over 30 years of age, is to be demolished for the new structure.

That decade’s “Big Thing” was a flop, Mervis said. “They screwed up. NML has one building that is going to last forever [its 1917 stone and steel monolith] and another building that didn’t last that long.”

Thanks to what he called “freckle development,” (“We put a spot here, and a spot there,” Mervis says the city should finally find a way to “hook up the dots.”

Calling again for Rah-Rah leadership, Mervis said the city has had plenty of studies of what to do. “There are multiple plans. But I defy you to tell me how they will work together.”

He says he was once approached with a plan for the east side. “This is the East Side plan,” Mervis said, asking “How does it relate to the west side plan?”

The response: “I don’t know. That’s the other side of the river.”

“Downtown is a mess.” Mervis said. “It’s a mess and it’s an opportunity.”

Gallery Lakefront Infrastructure Improvements

Photos from the Event


Categories: Real Estate

4 thoughts on “Does Lakefront Still Lack a Vision?”

  1. Michael James says:

    The lakefront does lack vision. Milwaukee needs a downtown shopping street – every fun city has at least one (ouch Milwaukee). Maybe these projects could be incorporated into such a plan. I think the best place would be East Wisconsin Ave. Walking down E WI Ave on Google maps, it seems that every building could be modified to include retail storefronts. Instead of a park that few will ever use, NWM could build retail along WI Ave (open to the street of course). The Betty Brinn could be replaced with a new building to include it as well as retail… I don’t know how to attract a bunch of stores, but, it seems that hundreds of new residential units are under construction and (thousands?) more are on the way – on the East Side and in the 3rd Ward (if those renderings I see on various websites ever turn into actual buildings). So, that would probably help. There would even be plenty of parking – Michigan Ave could change its name to ‘Parking Structure Street’ to help people find the parking. If the new shopping street was a success, it may even reach all the way to the Grand Ave, giving it new life. Maybe part of Milwaukee should eliminate parking codes allowing for the density required for this sort of place to happen?

  2. Jeff says:

    I’m curious if any mention of the threatened lawsuit by Preserve Our Parks was made. People seem to assume that the Couture will happen, but should we be worried that it will die in the courts?

  3. Macey Stoss says:

    Wasn’t it Michael (rah-rah) Mervis who endorsed the boondoggle of a fish farm in Bay View? That mess is now being sold off by the City of Milwaukee.

  4. Hank says:

    milwaukee rules theres should be more places to see some blues shows though

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