Rachel Quednau

Water and Knapp

It’s almost an empty wasteland. It can’t get worse, but how much can it improve?

By - Feb 26th, 2015 01:40 pm
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N. Water and E. Knapp streets

N. Water and E. Knapp streets

The intersection of N. Water and E. Knapp streets is practically empty. Normally some green space in a downtown would be a welcome respite from all the concrete and infrastructure, but this space isn’t green. It’s brown and dusty and quite an eyesore. It’s composed of an ugly parking lot, an unkempt field, and a passable burger joint, In fact, AJ Bomber’s is the only structure on this corner. The burger shop’s building has some charm, I suppose, but that’s not enough to save this corner.

Water and Knapp is a prime, downtown location, tucked between Schlitz Park on the riverfront, the bar district on Water Street, and the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Developers are already vying for the space. But as snow covers this barren corner until spring, it’s a good time to think carefully about what will best fit at this intersection and what will benefit the neighborhood most.

What Works

This space is a blank canvas with a great foundation: its spectacular location. Truly, it’s an area that is becoming ever more popular, and sees thousands of diverse Milwaukeeans pass through it on a regular basis. With a solid mix of student apartments, office buildings, restaurants, hotels and condos, the neighborhood receives considerable foot and auto traffic. The corner is also well serviced by the 57 and Green line bus routes—reaching West and North-South, respectively—so it can bring visitors from outside the immediate neighborhood. This intersection is also right next to the river, meaning it has the potential for attractive views and additional foot traffic along the waterfront during warm months.

The good news about the corner’s lack of development: at least it’s not occupied by a strip mall or massive parking structure or suburban-style big box store. It’s also better than what it used to be. The former Park East Freeway used to cut directly across Knapp and Water, making it essentially a non-place, a passing-through zone. Thank goodness the city demolished that. That history, of course, explains why this intersection is virtually empty now, and why it now has the potential to be a far more vibrant place.

What Doesn’t

As noted, the corner is largely occupied by parking lots and an abandoned, overgrown weed-filled triangle. The whole space resembles a soccer field after a zombie apocalypse. And it’s a big area, which means that unless a developer snaps it up for a single, massive complex, it will take several small buildings to fill it up. One or two stand-alone establishments will still leave the corner looking empty, and won’t be enough to draw the traffic it needs.

The roadways running through the intersection are also a problem. First, they don’t quite line up properly, making them awkward as a pass through and turning area, especially for the unfamiliar driver who might be coming off I-43. On top of this, the neighborhood is a drunk-driving hazard zone almost any night of the week, but especially Friday and Saturday nights. Cars driving too quickly around unpredictable curves with potentially intoxicated drivers is a mess indeed. That will be a consideration for any developer wishing  to build at this intersection. Traffic calming might be necessary if the intersection is to be connected to the walkable areas of the downtown.

Meanwhile, this intersection is not really serving anyone, besides the people who choose to park here, and customers of AJ Bombers. Why would a MSOE student ever want to walk this way? Why would a downtown employee ever give this corner a second glance? Why would a resident of the west side ever have reason to ride the 57 bus this far east? It looks like a neglected plot on the edge of town, even though it’s close to so many denser areas.

How Can We Improve it?

What the intersection doesn’t need is another condo, parking lot or grocery store. The neighborhood already has plenty of those. What it needs is to be connected, to link to the superior spaces around it. Any building or structure that’s useful for the community could create a connection to the restaurants on Brady Street, the offices in the Downtown and to the west, and the residences and churches to the east.

Marcus Corporation had proposed to create a movie theater complex with offices and restaurants in this area, but, as the Business Journal reported in October 2014, Marcus Corp “was unable to secure tenants and never moved forward.” Now, the lot is being pursued by Hammes Company, a real estate developer who hopes to use the space for an “office development.” An office development might be the most realistic move for this space. Downtown businesses are growing and the neighborhood is becoming a more popular place for Milwaukee companies to locate their offices. Manpower is just across the river. Lot prices will undoubtedly increase in this area. Wealthy developers might be the only ones willing to take a chance on a space of this size.

Hammes N. Water and Knapp strets proposed office complex.

Hammes N. Water and Knapp strets proposed office complex.

That being said, the Hammes proposal leaves something to be desired. The design doesn’t look particularly inviting, or attuned to the setting.  For one thing, it still leaves a fair amount of empty, purposeless space. For another, while the proposed buildings do offer river views for occupants, they cut off sight lines to the river for everyone else. Of course the rendering is just a starting point.

What else might make the space better? Some more outlandish ideas come to mind: What about a public swimming pool? Perhaps a daycare with a play space? Or an urban garden? Maybe a more realistic idea is a hotel. The Aloft, the Intercontinental and the Hyatt Regency (to name a few) have been successful in this neighborhood, meeting the travel needs of downtown companies and bringing customers to local restaurants and bars. And hotels often grow in bunches.

Before any of that happens, though, this would be a fantastic spot for a farmer’s market or flea market in the summer to test out the viability of the space. During Christmastime, a few tree sellers set up camp in nearby empty lots in this neighborhood, making perfect use of neglected space. I bought a tree from one of these stands simply because I saw it out my window on my bus ride home from work. This might also be an ideal area for a pop-up market of some kind. It would slow down traffic, increase local food options and fill this empty space with activity.

For an intersection this vast, the possibilities are endless. Developments are likely to come. Let’s hope the city makes wise choices as to which ones it decides to approve.

N. Water and E. Knapp streets

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: Water and Knapp”

  1. Dave Reid says:

    I’d love to see of the parking lots turned into a “pod,” a place where food trucks make semi-permanent locations ringing a parking lot, like in Portland. In the long-run it would be great for the empty corners to be filled up with mixed-use buildings, with yes, residential (condo or apartments) above. Finally, the Hammes project is such a suburban design it would actually make this corner worse.

  2. Rory Bellows says:

    That Hammes proposal would turn an empty lot into an empty lot with landscaping. All of the current problems with the space would persist.

    I maintain that Milwaukee’s deserted and neglected streets, in this area in particular, are a problem of scale. The plots and buildings are so large that the developments are all monotonous and single-use, and punctuated by large swaths of underused space.

  3. Eric S says:

    Wow, that Hammes proposal is awful. That doesn’t belong anywhere in the city, let alone downtown.

    Some sort of traffic calming is vital to improve the pedestrian experience. Both streets are too wide and encourage drivers to go too fast. Curb extensions at all four corners would be a start. (BBut really curb extensions and bus bulbs should be standard practice almost everywhere.)

  4. Christopher Hillard says:

    @Dave, yes to all of that. I’ll also just throw in there that while the MSOE field isn’t exactly in line with the kind of development the City was going for, it could actually be a great asset for any condos who could sell the non-river side of the development as overlooking the sports field, which could be a real novelty. I also just want to throw in that the Cherry Street Bridge houses are among the most under appreciated in the city. Bright chrome, glass blocks, art deco sensibilities, it’s one of the best New Deal projects we got in the city and an excellent aesthetic asset for a development to build on.

  5. Gary says:

    I know there was an early East Side Turner’s Hall either proposed or actually built at that intersection in the 1880s. I’ve got some notes to that effect gleaned from the local German language press — maybe an architect’s rendering too.

  6. My outlandish suggestion, which I previously shared both with the County under Walker and the Argosy Foundation, put a globe theater replica next to the river at the northwest corner – and a Elizabethan themed shops, condos, and apartments on the northeast corner. Multiple cities have built globe replica, and it could become a summer location for area Shakespeare troops and schools to provide entertainment. The area could then host an annual Renaissance Fair as a means of attracting business.

  7. Chris says:

    The Hammes “plan” is just embarrassing. It does nothing to recognize the site’s unique features. How can a company that’s supposed to be a leading expert in real estate development be so tone deaf and blind to the opportunities present for their own headquarters?!

  8. Christopher Hillard says:

    Re: Globe, in 1916 the Society I was in back in college actually built a replica of the Globe to stage “Comedy of Errors”: http://dla.library.upenn.edu/dla/archives/detail.html?id=ARCHIVES_20060127002

  9. CK James says:

    Traffic does indeed fly through that area like it’s a drag racing strip. There have been countless pedestrians hit there. BECAUSE of that, I’d vote against putting a pool or daycare there.

    I think the police should set up a multi-purpose community educational facility there. It could serve as a cop shop mini-office for all the officers who already ride horseback and stand in the intersections doing crowd control 3 nights a week.

    Heck, I’d build a small stable there to keep the MPD horses as well. Let citizens check out the horses during the day, chat with officers , buy parking permits, etc. A good way for MPD to improve rapport with the public.

  10. Frank says:

    They should put a Taco Bell on the NW corner.

  11. Bill Sell says:

    Look west and notice the parking along the river. Fixing that into something pedestrian might be the first step in reviving this area. Wasting a river bank on parking (both sides of the river, truth be told) is the worst waste of this precious turf. Once a plan for the riverfront emerges, that triangle is more likely to find its tenant.

  12. I love all these ideas! Thanks for participating in the discussion. Hopefully we’ll see one of these come to fruition soon.

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