Where Will NM Build New Parking Structure?
Decision could have big impact -- either good or bad -- on Downtown.
On December 18th, 2014, Northwestern Mutual announced that they will be building “a mixed use real estate development immediately west of its downtown Milwaukee campus,” which includes 1,000 parking spaces for its employees as well as residential and even retail areas. The company hasn’t formally announced the location of the parking structure, but all signs point to a block of company-owned buildings and land just west of their campus.
Northwestern Mutual is currently constructing the 32-story Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons at 800 E. Wisconsin Ave. The new tower replaces the much smaller East Building. The company’s downtown expansion has prompted a search for additional parking. Late last year, they tried to purchase the O’Donnell Park parking garage from Milwaukee County for $14 million. The Milwaukee County Board ultimately rejected the offer on a close vote. Later that same day, the company announced their plans to build a new parking structure.
Northwestern Mutual also owns another entire downtown block on E. Wisconsin Ave., also bordered by N. Van Buren St., E. Michigan St., and N. Jackson St. It doesn’t appear likely that the new parking structure will end up on that block. The Wisconsin Avenue block is further from the campus and much further from the company’s existing parking garage on E. Mason St. In addition, the Wisconsin Avenue block contains a building that is newer, bigger, and more valuable than any of the other properties in the other block.
Given the likely location and scale of the planned parking structure, the design is critical. Large parking structures can create block-wide, activity voids. They’re essential to the function of a city, but their scale and single-use can kill street activity by limiting their active periods to the morning rush hour and quitting time. Large parking structures have already negatively affected many parts of Downtown, including many areas of Westown.
Northwestern Mutual’s existing parking garage is an example of a deadening parking garage. Yes, it has some design elements, like well-maintained landscaping that make it slightly more attractive, but it’s still a parking-only structure. It serves as the dividing point between the Northwestern Mutual campus and the rest of East Town. The new parking structure could also contribute to or even worsen this divide.
A good example of how to minimize the impact of a large parking garage is just west of where their new development is likely to go. The Cathedral Place building hides the garage well. The north side, which faces Cathedral Square Park, is covered with offices, retail, and condominiums. The south and east sides of the garage are hidden at street level by a number of commercial spaces, while the garage is still visible above. The building has many different users at many different times of the day and is inviting to walk around with the variety of retail and restaurant tenants.
If Northwestern Mutual does build the structure, hopefully it won’t be home to just parking. The company has mentioned potential residential and commercial components. The additional uses would break up the massing of the building and introduce more activity generators to the area. Just like the Commons portion of the new tower is intended to, the new parking structure also has the potential to bring the campus and city closer together — if it’s done right.