Rebuilding A World of Cream City Brick
Huge "River House" development on the river will have 450 apartments, a substantial riverwalk and an updated Cream City design by architect Jim Shields.
Architect Jim Shields has been working since last summer trying to figure out a program to redevelop one of the city’s potentially most valuable, but confoundingly complicated sites — the former Gallun Tannery. He took a break from his continual refinements on the project to share plans for what is tentatively called “River House,” to be located on 5.3 acres with 1,100 feet of Milwaukee River frontage on N. Water St., just upstream from the Edward D. Holton Viaduct.
He spoke Tuesday evening at The Hamilton, 828 E. Hamilton St. in a solid building that had once been the executive garage for the tannery.
The meeting was called by Ald. Nik Kovac who does so for any proposal that requires a zoning change for a planned unit development like the River House, he told the audience of about 60 neighbors. Most were in attendance because they had received a postcard from the alderman informing them of the event. Kovac explained that the informal meeting was to gather neighborhood input on the proposal.
Aaronson, in brief remarks, said the proposal involves about “8 to 9 months of activities” by his firm, consultants, and the architect, Jim Shields, of HGA, and then turned the meeting over to him.
Shields began with his Milwaukee credentials, saying he was born on N. Prospect Ave., and subsequently lived on N. Bartlett and N. Frederick avenues before moving into his current N. Hackett Ave. home in 1992.
The large site to be developed is bounded to the west by the Milwaukee river, to the south by the Edward D. Holton Viaduct and Marsupial Bridge, to the north by an unfortunate MMSD easement, and a building proposed for 1887 N. Water St. To the east is N. Water St. itself, flanked on the east side of the street with a series of late 19th century and early 20th century Cream City brick buildings that include the Red Lion, Trocadero, and a former Gallun office building long since converted to condominiums.
The site itself is vacant, with the tannery buildings being demolished in early 2011 after years of decay and unsuccessful attempts to salvage them.
But Shields wants to bring back the Cream City look along the street, he said, proposing to use masonry that as closely as possible matches the original product. “We will try to rebuild the lost world of Cream City brick buildings here,” he said. The buildings will be somewhat lower than the neighbors across the street, and will “work in the language of old Cream City brick buildings” by emphasizing a classical base, midsection and top configuration in the structures, with vertical windows and two courses of limestone banding at the base and top.
Balconies will not be projecting, he said, but would be recessed into the four buildings.
One problem with the old tannery was that the buildings offered a monolithic facade to the street. “You couldn’t see that there was a river there,” he said of the old tannery.
Instead, “we will try to take what was a wall, and provide places of permeability where you can see through and walk through the buildings,” he said. “Eight of them.”
Each building will be pierced with a pedestrian walkway leading to the river frontage. Vehicular passages between the buildings will provide access to the parking structures to be located below. A 60 foot wide vehicular street will lead to the river at the south end of the development, while a low-slope pedestrian ramp will be on the north side of the buildings, at the site of the MMSD easement.
The river frontage of the development will be “something different — with more light and character,” he said. Each building will have uniquely different setbacks at the top, to be finished in what he called “jewel colors” that we have seen elsewhere on the river.
The setbacks will provide terraces -some public, and some private — for the use of residents. There will be swimming pools, bocce courts and activities of that nature, he said, adding that some units will be “family-friendly, three-bedroom apartments.”
The 12-foot-wide riverwalk will connect to the Marsupial Plaza and will complete a portion of that project which was abandoned due to lack of funding when first built. This will provide three levels of horizontal traffic at one point, which certainly is in line with the urban design tenet of “connections and reconnections.”
A ground-floor portion of the development opposite Trocadero and facing on the Marsupial Plaza will be reserved for a meeting room, where “events like the one tonight can be held.” The public space should provide “more eyes” on the plaza, he said. The riverwalk is to be landscaped with native plants like sumac, quaking aspen and grasses, such as can be seen at the Kane Commons development further upstream. The vegetation should hide the parking garage portion of the structure. It will have seating, recreation areas and possibly a floating dock, if provisions for its maintenance can be made. (Docks must be removed for storage in the winter.)
The site is peculiar and challenging in that it is a level surface some 18 feet below the grade of N. Water St. A stone retaining wall dating to the 19th century was examined and found to be in excellent condition. Additionally, the old building’s foundations, five feet to the west of the sidewalk, have also been retained. “They have lasted over a hundred years, and we will not risk removing them,” Shields said. With the new buildings’ foundations to be constructed yet another three feet west, the buildings will “effectively have a triple retaining wall.” he noted.
Ald. Kovac opened the meeting to questions from attendees, and no major concerns were brought up, although some residents lamented the upcoming loss of their new views. Kovac found there were no attendees greatly opposed to the proposal, and concluded the neighbors seem satisfied with what had been presented at the meeting.
After the meeting, Aaronson, the developer, expressed satisfaction about working with city staff. He said that financing for the project is nearly complete on the project, and volunteered that “Ald. Kovac is the hardest working alderman” he had yet encountered in his experience.