Putting the Pieces Together
Can the 15 year project revive an area that’s been in decline for 50 years? Last story in a series.
Under gray skies and light rain, the 30th Street Corridor’s stakeholders came together on September 16 to break ground on General Capital’s new building just west of 31st St. and south of Capitol Dr. on the grounds of the Century City development.
Standing behind a podium with Ald. Russell Stamper, II to his right and Ald. Willie Wade to his left, Mayor Tom Barrett addresses a crowd of about 75 people and a couple TV news cameras. “I want businesses to succeed here,” he tells the crowd. “I want businesses to make a lot of money. I want them to employ a lot of people.” Among the many folks thanked, Barrett singles out General Capital’s Michael Weiss, calling him a “trailblazer.”
The mayor is followed by Wade, who recalls a conversation with City Comptroller Martin Matson just shortly after Milwaukee’s Common Council committed $30 million to the corridor. “It’s a lot of money and we can’t really afford to do it,” the comptroller told Wade. “But we can’t really afford not to do it.”
The old industrial area calls to mind images of machines and in truth, the redevelopment of the corridor must work something like that. It’s various components—business development, workforce training, housing, greenway and brownfield clean up — must be intricately linked up and function together like the gears of a smoothly functioning machine. This is not the first time that the city has attempted to revive the corridor, but this effort is far more ambitious. What everyone is counting on is this time is that the project has achieved enough critical mass to turn an abandoned swath of the city into a thriving economic engine that will provide jobs, promote homeownership and drive down crime.
In response to the concern that those jobs might not be for the community directly abutting the corridor, Willie Wade points out: “They said the same thing about Talgo. Eighty-five percent of their workers came from within three miles.” And Barrett stresses inclusion: “I want jobs for people up and down the economic ladder. I want there to be jobs for all people.”
At its peak, A.O. Smith employed 9,000 workers in Century City. By comparison, the redevelopment of the Menomonee Valley was declared a success when the new businesses there had hired a little more than a third—3,500—of that number, and subsequently lost 600 of them when the Cargill plant shut down. The economics of modern manufacturing are somewhat at odds with the goals of the city. Advanced manufacturing industries are focused on automation.
Business people like Tom Ryan of Jonco Industries and Art Arnstein of United Milwaukee Scrap, have a long history with the corridor, and remember when it was a thriving area. Employees could walk to work. They could buy houses on their working class wages. There were shops and retail outlets that met their needs and neighborhood schools for their children.
The big manufacturers left behind an enviable manufacturing infrastructure. Century City Tower inherited a first-class research building from Eaton, complete with hydraulic lift tables and a 30 kilowatt power generating plant. There’s a 10-inch, high-powered gas line under Capital Avenue that can provide enough energy for most any endeavor choosing to locate in Century City. But while everyone involved in the corridor is focused on companies that pay “family-supporting wages,” no one has yet defined what a family supporting wage is. At $15 an hour, Kein Burton of RACM points out, a worker can buy a car. But is $15 an hour enough to buy a house? To cover child care and the expenses of raising a family? Will the jobs in the corridor be attractive enough to draw in families from throughout the city and create the kind of neighborhood that Yvonne McCaskill, a resident of the Triangle Neighborhood Association, remembers from her early days there, when the area bustled with families of all races and all ages?
The city has identified 2030 as the projected completion date for the corridor project; that might seem like a long time but its just fifteen years to reverse five decades of decline. And it’s a long time to maintain the level of interest and energy that’s now focused on developing the Corridor.
The narrative of the 30th Street Corridor, says Wyman Winston of the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Corporation, “is running contrary to the narrative of cities.” The narrative of cities, he explains, “is victims and predators and everyone who is afraid of that space.” The perception of the corridor as an area that’s unsafe is the project’s biggest challenge, which the Common Council recognized when they created legislation that, according to Wade, will allow companies to “employ Milwaukee police officers on their own dime,” to keep watch over their property. Wade points out that a project like Century City has three stages: the first is remediation, the second is development and the third is jobs. The city has already demonstrated their success with the first two: restoring the land and putting up buildings. Though the site problems in the Corridor are complex, they’re knowable. They can be solved by science and engineering and money.
The third step—creating jobs—is perhaps the largest challenge. Also unknown is whether those jobs will create economic prosperity for the corridor’s neighborhoods. Predominantly African American now, families there can remember a time when they were redlined and blacks were only able to move in after whites had already abandoned the neighborhoods for the suburbs. That distrust is still there.
At the front of the training room, Howard Snyder, Executive Director of the Northwest Side Community Development Corporation, welcomed the attendees to NWSCDC’s second home buying workshop. Its housing initiative seeks to rehab and then sell city foreclosures. The program creates lease-to-own opportunities for homebuyers in a community where housing prices are low enough that buyers’ monthly mortgage payments will be similar or even less than what they’re currently paying in rent. When they initiated the program, Snyder tells the crowd, they were told, “You can’t sell houses to people in that neighborhood. And,” he adds, “we all know what they were saying.” The room nods in agreement, “Uh, huh,” they agree. “We believe in the market,” Snyder says. “We believe in the community.”
Following jobs and homeownership, stakeholders argue, comes hope and faith in the future of the corridor. That success will have an impact on the crime problem, the perception of which, everyone agrees, is worse than the reality, though the poverty, low educational attainment and crime in the area are real—shot through a once vibrant working and middle class community whose location was, to some extent, dictated by Milwaukee’s history of racial segregation.
For now, the corridor’s future is still just on the paper of all those plans: from the city to state and federal agencies to the Milwaukee 7 business development group, where the corridor merits a mention in its gigantic regional plans to upscale a struggling regional economy. The city and WHEDA have have identified the corridor as a foundational “catalytic” project along with the Menomonee Valley, the Reed Street Yards, and the new Freshwater Research facility already built by UW-Milwaukee. For the corridor’s Business Improvement District and the neighborhood associations on its border, the corridor development is their entire focus. General Capital has held up its end of the deal and partner Michael Weiss is looking forward with confidence: “I think there’s a need. There’ve been no new products from neighborhood in many years. People are interested in leasing.” On October 22, NW Impact, NWSCDC’s housing program, will host it’s own ceremony: a ribbon-cutting for the first tenants who’ve signed a lease in the rent-to-own program.
At the height of last summer, on a warm day when a sparkling blue midwestern sky seem to reach all the way down to the empty acreage left behind by A.O. Smith, Benji Timm, RACM’s project manager for the site, recalled the challenges of creating that empty space from the abandoned factories that were once there. When A.O. Smith needed more facilities for their growing concern, he laughs, “they just put a roof over part of the alley.” There was a research office built on stilts over HVAC equipment and the site was riddled with bunkers built during wartime so that if the Luftwaffe had bombed the intersection of Capital and Hopkins, the company could wipe away the rubble and be back at work on its defense contracts the next day. Standing in the hollowed-out remains of the company that once produced the frames for every car manufactured in America, it’s impossible to imagine the teeming activity that was once there, and sobering to consider how much work by smart people will be required to revive the area. Waving his arm in a gesture that incorporates not only the ready-but-empty Talgo plant, the art-deco office tower, and the entire, abandoned acreage of waving grass and wildflowers, Timm underlines the challenge before the city: “This didn’t get this way overnight.”