Rachel Quednau

1st St. and Pittsburgh Ave.

It’s a tad shabby now, but could become a wonderful entranceway to Walker’s Point

By - Nov 3rd, 2014 12:00 pm
S. 1st St. and Pittsburgh Ave.

S. 1st St. and Pittsburgh Ave.

Walker’s Point has been getting considerable press over the last year—even from the New York Times, which gushed about places like Braise restaurant and Indulgence Chocolatiers in January. But the neighborhood will need more than just a handful of fine dining establishments to define it as a cohesive and distinct place.

The intersection of S. 1st St. and Pittsburgh Ave. is a classic example of this. On one corner, it has a trendy, successful Colectivo Coffee which has made its home inside an old foundry, capturing the industrial-chic feel that dominates the neighborhood. On another corner, there’s a mixed-use building with Rumor Lounge on the bottom floor and offices above. Compare this to the other two southern corners of this intersection: one is a fenced in, weed-filled, empty lot; the other seems to be a vacant auto body shop (for sale!). This is Walker’s Point to a T: Pockets of new growth and unique businesses coupled with empty buildings and crab-grassy, empty lots. 1st and Pittsburgh has so much promise, and could set the tone for refurbishment and beautification in the rest of the neighborhood.

What Works?

The intersection’s key assets are without a doubt its character and its room for growth. First, the physical intersection itself is striking. Approached from the south, it’s the biggest, busiest intersection you’ll encounter for almost two miles, with a stoplight, a designated right turn channel, two major bus stops and a railroad line next door. Coming from the north, this intersection marks the end of stop-and-go, meandering downtown traffic. Although it poses a few issues for non-drivers, it feels significant, like the entrance to a new neighborhood. The architectural infrastructure of the intersection is also of note. The old warehouses that surround the corner are diverse in shape and color, offering a distinctive, historic style. One building just south of an empty lot is covered with a beautiful, bold mural. Naturally, with older buildings comes stability and dependable infrastructure that is ripe for new occupants and ideas.

This brings me to the next best thing about the intersection: The surrounding area has so much promise. You might not notice it at first, but the buildings on neighboring blocks are home to an array of small businesses, consulting firms and more. They prove that business and housing can mix seamlessly while maintaining the historic character of the neighborhood. The more businesses that grab onto this concept, the better.

What Doesn’t?

Unfortunately, for most people, the intersection of 1st and Pittsburgh is treated like a pass-through zone, particularly during the evening rush hour. Everyone is rushing home from work downtown towards Bay View, St. Francis and beyond. The cars move so fast (this road is designed like a speedway and runs parallel to the highway, so people are basically using it as such), and there’s nothing to direct them off their course. What if we could convince them to stick around after work to do their grocery shopping or see a show, or at the very least, to respect this neighborhood as more than just an industrial park to speed through?

Another unfortunate aspect of the area is the abandoned buildings and vacant lots. While they do hold potential, for now they are a bit creepy, making people much less interested in hanging around the neighborhood. Less occupied buildings means less eyes on the ground. As one Yelp reviewer said of Rumor Lounge, “The surrounding neighborhood is desolate and kind of scary.” I suspect that moving new businesses into vacant buildings and lots takes some maneuvering around existing zoning codes which designate much of Walker’s Point for industrial use. Nonetheless, many new businesses around this intersection have proven it’s possible.

One final challenge for this intersection is its transportation infrastructure. Designated right turn channels make traffic flow quickly by diverting cars into different paths based on their destination. However, this intersection model almost always complicates travel for pedestrians and bikers because it’s not clear where they should be or when they are free to move. The current owner of the vacant lot has requested that the right-turn lane be removed, and I think he’s onto something [Editor’s note: Vacation of the turn lane has been added to the City Plan Commission agenda as of this morning]. Colectivo accomplished this feat when they moved in a couple years back, which enabled them to build a lovely outdoor patio.

How Can we Improve it?

1st and Pittsburgh is a key juncture. If we made it more attractive, welcoming and pedestrian-friendly, we could help spur the commercial growth of Walker’s Point. First, that vacant building should be filled. Colectivo is a savvy business and has done well here; if they decided the intersection was worth investing in, then other businesses will eventually follow. With that long-gone auto repair shop ripe for the taking, I bet nearby residents would appreciate a corner grocery store, or a casual eatery in its place.

Meanwhile, the vacant lot could be easily transformed into a park or dog park simply by removing the chain-link fence, planting a few flowers, sprucing up the grass and adding a bench or two. A playground might also be a useful addition to encourage more families to move into this neighborhood, and to help out the ones that are already here. The closest green space is Lake Shore State Park, not that close or easy to access from this spot.

A park on this corner would not only be a fantastic way to attract more pedestrians, but would also create a welcoming entry point to the neighborhood. Rather than the intersection being the last vestige of the boutique warehouse splendor that is the Third Ward, it could become the place that indicates you’ve entered the unique neighborhood of Walker’s Point. A “Welcome to Walker’s Point” sign could be displayed prominently on the lot, building on the branding of Walker’s Point that can be found on signposts around the neighborhood. That technique has certainly worked well for the Third Ward.

Additionally, with the spread-out nature of the restaurants and antique stores in Walker’s Point, a posted map would also do wonders to help encourage both locals and visitors to walk around the neighborhood more, rather than just driving in to La Meranda or Blue Jacket on a Friday night. Why not anchor that map here?

Finally, a little more pedestrian-friendliness would make this entrance to Walker’s Point a more inviting place. First, this spot would benefit from clearer and more pronounced space for bikers and pedestrians, as well as more obvious signage directing them where to go. Second, an extension of the sidewalk (possibly eliminating the right-turn channel) could create more safety for pedestrians.

Walker’s Point is one of the most interesting neighborhoods in Milwaukee; it just needs to do a better job of welcoming people through its streets. With a few simple steps to beautify the space and a new business to occupy the empty building, 1st and Pittsburgh could become the perfect entranceway to the neighborhood.

The Intersection

About Intersection

As part of  new Milwaukeean Rachel Quednau‘s exploration of Milwaukee, she will be exploring how the city can take better advantage of its many significant intersections.

14 thoughts on “Intersection: 1st St. and Pittsburgh Ave.”

  1. Klaser says:

    I think that whole area is affected by the ancient rail infrastructure that cuts it in half. If the tracks were converted into a subway it would open up a lot of space for other types of infrastructure. I’m not talking about the whole line, just from the river to National. Quite a bit of space is taken up by the tracks. The trains add significant noise, making residential in that area less desirable. And the height restrictions imposed by the bridges limits freight routes.

  2. Chris says:

    I could be wrong, but I believe the owner of the property on the SE corner is proposing a development that’s essentially a strip mall. If this is indeed true, it’s a huge lost opportunity.

    Cars speed in this area because of it’s vast openness. It’s called induced speeding as there are no physical barriers to make one feel constrained.

  3. Dick says:

    Good ideas, among which is NOT another fourth-rate public sculpture.

  4. Pam says:

    I live right here in Walkers Point and I can’t help but say “YES! I agree with you 100% Rachel!!”

    I have walked from Walkers Point to the Third Ward and have seen almost NO ONE else walking. What the heck?! Between the hottest spot in Milwaukee and Restaurant Row why in the heck am I the only one not in a car?!

    We need to connect these two neighborhoods better and make it easier to access and support these local businesses. But, also need it to be safer. Walkers Point has been victim to a ridiculous amount of crime.

    These ideas could help!

  5. Geoff Grohowski says:

    I say no to removing the rail infrastructure. It adds authentic character to the area and is part of it’s history and visual interest. Let’s keep it real and not sanitize the area to death. Too many bland modern structures already. The suggestions in the article are good ones. What eliminates “creepiness,” are actively occupied buildings and foot traffic.

  6. Punxsutawney Phil says:

    I live a block from this intersection. First order of business is to slow the traffic, which races along S. 1st St. at all hours of the day and night. Morning rush hour into Downtown is the worst, but it is always bad. Street design can help slow traffic. See what the Third Ward Association did on Milwaukee St. Center islands with plantings. The Milwaukee Police Department could help by writing speeding tickets, particularly during the rush hours. A very visible enforcement effort is effective.

    No more ticky tacky, cheap looking new construction. The Rumors Lounge and WHEDA buildings cheapen the character of the neighborhood. Hire a competent architect!

  7. Dave Reid says:

    @Punxs Phil The building that Rumor Lounge is in was done by Vetter Denk, a very competent architect. And Rumor itself is a good looking bar. And regardless of firm that is a great looking building. The WHEDA building yeah not as much, but mainly because of the materials which is more related to the developer than the architect.

    That said I’d like to see more street improvements as well. At least get rid of the high-speed turn lane as that is not a pedestrian friendly element at all.

  8. douglas quigley says:

    Like Geoff said, the rails are important historically & aesthetically. They are the closest thing we have to the old elevated lines in other cities. If you don’t appreciate urban charm stay in Brookfield. I implore those in power not to allow any more generic strip malls! Walker’s Point doesn’t have a design commission which can result in awful structures that scar the area (Hallman Lindsey, WHEDA, etc.) Quality infill in this historic area like Rumors where vacant lots exist would be fantastic. The railroad underpass at Seeboth could be an awesome little outdoor gallery. If Karl Kopp ever followed through w/ his Italian restaurant in the 1871 brick bldg. at 106 W. Seeboth St. which he’s owned since 1984, that would certainly kick start quality development & rehab. The gas station Rachel mentioned is slated for removal. A high profile irregular parcel that needs the creativity of the likes of Vetter Denk. The rehab of the tall 1880’s cream brick bldg. visible beyond this lot has come to a standstill. All these pieces of Walker’s Points puzzle can be masterfully put together with the right guidance.

  9. Todd says:

    Third Ward/Walker’s Point needs a decently-sized grocery store like nobody’s business. After working in the Third Ward for three years, I can profess. Circle K is only good for alcohol and college food. The closest one to the north is the Metro Market all the way up in East Town, and the closest one to the south is aaaaaaaaall the way down by Outpost in the southern end of Bay View. How kickass would it be to have a Whole Foods or Sendik’s there? The Third Ward definitely has the clientele.

  10. Punxsutawney Phil says:

    Cermak, which has a great supermarket on Miller Park Way, is interested in building a Walker’s Point grocery, but the available land is not properly zoned for that, and the city has resisted rezoning the parcel.

  11. Dave Reid says:

    @Punxs Phil I think the issue with the Walker’s Point grocery store proposal is that the design was very suburban in nature. i.e. massive parking lot on the corner… With some design changes it could get done.

  12. Paul says:

    I agree with several others that the train tracks are definitely part of what gives the area it’s character. I have lived and worked in the area and I loved how the train tracks intermingle with the neighborhood. It gives it that big-time urban feel.

    The author mentioned additional signage which I think is a great idea. Anything that can give it a better sense of place and make it seem more pedestrian and bike friendly will help spur people to move there and businesses to open there — which is what will really make the difference in the long run.

  13. CK James says:

    The vacant lots on the corners could be cheaply and easily converted into more useful and/or aesthetically pleasing places.

    Maybe Growing Power could help turn the fenced lot into a small outdoor, urban gardening showcase and teaching location. Also, park a produce truck there at lunchtime in the summer – like a mini, mobile farmers market. Pedal a bit of fresh food for the Vince and Vanessa Vegans, Linda Locals, and Stuart Suit & Tie Office Break Guys.

    In the winter, it’s just a peaceful, dormant planting plot with a simple walking path and a few benches/ vine trellises. Low cost – and much nicer than the current fenced in concrete jungle, which currently only seems to cage debris collages composed of old, discarded coffee cups and feather covered innards from decomposing seagulls.

  14. Erik says:

    Update: the 2 former service station(?) buildings on the southwest corner of this intersection are currently in the process of coming down. Crews have been making quick work on them since the beginning of this week – one is already down with the other appearing to be down in a day or so.

    I don’t know if there are any immediate plans for this lot, as it is quite small and oddly shaped. Simply activating it would be an improvement in the interim.

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