Why Bucks’ Entertainment District May Fail
Across the country these mega-projects have hurt cities with generic development that banishes local charm.
Back in 2008, two professors wrote a piece for the Journal of Urban Design on “entertainment zones“ with “unplanned nightlife” arising in some cities and picked Milwaukee’s Water Street bar district as a classic and successful example. Water Street, argued professors Daniel Campo and Brent D. Ryan, is a classic example of “Entertainment zones” that are “concentrated nightlife districts occupying the margins of downtowns in former commercial and industrial areas, underutilized retail corridors or underdeveloped waterfronts.”
Ryan, a professor of urban design at MIT, had once lived in Chicago and was familiar with Milwaukee, and so he and Campo took a look at this city. “We thought it was ironic you had all these major development projects, like Grand Avenue Mall and the convention center, west of the river, and none of these places were fun to hang out in. The place that was the most fun was the area planners had forgot about.”
Water Street simply arose on its own, with no urban planning, no city subsidies, in a somewhat run-down area, developing serendipitously by taking advantage of what makes a city pop: density, diversity and proximity. “The modest buildings of north Water Street would seem an unlikely candidate for the densest concentration of bars and restaurants in the Milwaukee region,” the authors write. “Nonetheless, in 2003 the two small blocks of north Water Street and parts of two adjacent blocks contained 14 entertainment establishments. This number increased to 16 establishments by 2007… Only one building occupies more than 25% of the block frontage, and no building is more than four storeys high.”
They note that Water Street “lacks many of those design features conventionally labelled as ‘good urbanism’, such as wide sidewalks, park spaces, sidewalk cafes… signage and planting schemes,” yet “the district’s modest scale and visual variety create a lively streetscape that modern downtown development processes cannot easily replicate despite substantial subsidies and national corporate involvement.”
Indeed, the authors contrast Water Street to the more touted urban entertainment districts like Universal CityWalk (Los Angeles), Fourth Street Live (Louisville) and Centro Ybor (Tampa), which are “characterized by large size and an inward focus… usually range from 250,000 to 600,000 square feet, although newer facilities can be even larger,” and “much like casinos … are wholly contained, inward-oriented environments, designed to create and maximize a captive market.”
Their expansive size “makes them difficult to fit within existing urban street patterns and their development therefore often requires… the acquisition or condemnation of private property, or large, isolated parcels,” the study notes.
Similarly, the Milwaukee Bucks owners are creating a huge entertainment district with a far larger arena (two square blocks) than the Bradley Center and another square block or more of bars, restaurants and retail. The development will require the demolition of a city parking garage, will be created by one owner, and the bars and restaurants will largely be national chains rather than locally unique places. (The Bucks have promised the city that 25 percent will be locally owned.) This huge, tax subsidized mega-project is designed to capture every dollar spent by Bucks fans, so that none of it spins off into other parts of the city.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it draws customers away from Water Street,” says Ryan.
Ryan says Milwaukee was lucky that both Miller Park and the Potawatomi Casino were built in the Menomonee Valley rather than in Downtown. The theory that a stadium or arena can help a downtown is largely based on older, far smaller facilities like Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, he notes. The effect of today’s mega-stadiums or arenas is “always the same” in its impact on downtowns, Ryan says: “It’s always expensive, it always gets a large public subsidy, it’s always destructive to the existing city, and it forecloses other, more interesting development that could occur.”
Ryan and Campo point to a long list of urban design researchers which have “found informality, accident and lack of unifying plans to be key factors in good urban design,” have “praised dense neighborhoods of modestly-scaled buildings” and “have argued that dwellings and cities must develop organically” and cannot be created “by centralized authority… or by master plans.’”
Besides Water Street, the city has seen successful development arise on Brady Street, in Bay View centered on S. Kinnickinnic Ave., on Milwaukee Street, and is seeing similar development on S. 2nd St. in Walker’s Point and Center Street in Riverwest and of course in the Third Ward. All of these areas are uniquely local and a lot of fun. (As for central planning, the Third Ward’s growth was helped by the neighborhood association plan and city tax incremental financing, and Second Street benefitted from a street widening, brown fields grants, etc.)
The Bucks development, by contrast, will involve zero informality or accident and is all about top-down execution by a corporate master plan. In Bay View all kinds of young entrepreneurs have put untold hours of sweat equity into creating unique bars and restaurants and retail shops. The Bucks entertainment district, by contrast, will pick from off-the-shelf national retailers. Rather than locally unique, it will mimic other huge entertainment complexes.
The result could be something like Dallas’s Victory Park, a “pre-planned billion-dollar collection of imposing hyper-modern monumental structures, high-end chain stores, enormous video screens, expensive restaurants, a sports arena and tons of parking, completely isolated from the rest of the city,” as Salon columnist Will Doig has written. “Victory Park is like the schizophrenic dream of some power-hungry capitalist technocrat.”
The blandness and ersatz urbanism of Victory Park or the Kansas City Power & Light district (“no one would mistake Power & Light for neighborhood created by cool kids”) is not by accident, Doig writes. “The economics of single-owner districts incentivize blandness. Chain stores and restaurants can afford to pay higher rent, so they get first dibs. To boost rents even higher, tenants are sometimes promised that no competition will be allowed nearby.”
Courtesy of Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele’s plan to give the Bucks ten acres of downtown land, the Bucks will have low entry costs for a total development plan that’s now grown to about nine square blocks. There will be a Bucks practice facility, tons of parking, office, residential and retail development and a 300-room hotel.
The good news is the now-empty Park East land west of the river will be filled in, and if city officials are correct, much of this development will pay property taxes (though we still haven’t seen the legal language, and the Bucks will push for every nickel of tax exemptions they can get).
The bad news is that all of this development is likely to be cookie-cutter creations based on what generates profits in other cities. If these nine square blocks got developed more slowly and serendipitously as happened on Water Street, there would be 72 different businesses operating and competing with each other rather than one corporate master who has a lock on all the land, and there would be constant change, with different businesses rising and falling, remodeling and tinkering.
The irony of all this is that the city (and county and state) will provide a huge subsidy to the Bucks to create a tinny echo of the most generic parts of other downtowns. Meanwhile little or no subsidy is going to all the hard working, imaginative, ever-changing entrepreneurs of Bay View, Brady Street, Milwaukee Street, the Third Ward, Jefferson Street, Walker’s Point, Center Street and Old World Third Street, all of whom are transforming Milwaukee into an ever-cooler city.
And if any of these entrepreneurs fail, there will be no rescue from the city, but rather a rush by some other business person to fill the gap. Yet, if the huge plan by the Bucks fails or if the arena needs expansion, as inevitably occurs, the team’s billionaire owners will be back to the city, county and state asking for more money, to assure that the same show goes on and on and on.