Jack Fennimore

Growing Pains for The Spot 4MKE

The project won a grant from the Herzfeld Foundation, but how many people is it attracting?

By - Nov 4th, 2015 04:01 pm
The Spot 4MKE. Photo by Jack Fennimore.

The Spot 4MKE. Photo by Jack Fennimore.

When we last wrote about The Spot 4MKE, it was July and the project led by Creative Alliance Milwaukee had done a colorful transformation of the dismal surface parking lot on 5th St. and Wisconsin Ave. The July 22 event includes games, food, drumming and other activities, but as I wrote, the debut of The Spot 4MKE was “was modest at best, with only a handful of things to do and see.”

Last Thursday brought forth Fall on the Spot, a presentation meant to commemorate the success and future potential of the project.

But beforehand, Maggie Kuhn Jacobus, President and CEO of Creative Alliance Milwaukee invited friends and partners to discuss the success of The Spot 4MKE and what it has in store for the future, while providing a stellar view of the space from the 5th floor of the Hilton Hotel. Most of the presentation was devoted to explaining their creative problem solving process and inspirations from other cities. As we’ve previously written, other urban places have faced similar problems as Wisconsin Ave., but are now vibrant places, including Campus Martius and Cadillac Square in Detroit, which features a beach area full of sand for people of all ages; Les Berges in Paris, which features seating so comfortable you can take your shoes off; and the Flying Grass Carpet in Belgium which offers people a comfortable, ornate carpet made of artificial grass for picnics and games. Jacobus also offered some information pointing to the future of the project.

Concrete Dreamers

Jacobus first applauded a group known as Concrete Dreamers, made up of Mikal Floyd-Pruitt and Fondé P. Bridges, for their work over the past six weeks of their residency in creating pinwheel towers, planters, programing, a “dream pole” designed by Vedale Hill and a new ground mural designed by Tia Chianti Richardson.

“We recognized there was this opportunity to symbolically capture that you can create dreams that are concrete,” said Bridges. “You can also, on concrete, create dreamlike experiences.” The groups formed out of the residency at the Hilton Hotel. Jacobus and Carol Voss, CAM’s Director of Communications and Special Projects, approached the group and introduced the opportunity to them.

The flower mural outside was created with the help of volunteers and was based on sacred geometry. “What you see when you look outside, you see the mural and you see those six petals, what’s hidden in the design is that to create those six petals you need seven circles,” Bridges said. “Once you get to three circles, you can make the triangles that you see outside by using the center points. So there are all these different elements that are outside that are kind of hidden in the beauty but natural to our world.”

You can check out their work in action here.

New Grant

Jacobus announced that the group is now raising funds for a challenge grant from the Richard and Ethel Herzfeld Foundation. According to a news release, the grant is meant to “leverage additional investors and foundations to support initiatives of Creative Alliance Milwaukee… including The Spot 4MKE” and contributions received through December 15th will be matched on a one-to-one basis by the foundation, up to a total of $50,000 from Herzfeld and the $50,000 match, for a total of $100,000 going to Creative Alliance.

Jacobus said she hoped that individuals, corporations and organizations now “understand how critical The Spot 4MKE, because of its location, is for our entire community. We hope that we have now demonstrated that this can work, that activity can happen here, activation can happen here, and that, as it gathers momentum, that other funders would join in.”

New Changes

Creative Alliance also received a Class B Tavern license over the past summer. Jacobus said that they don’t expect to open a full tavern on the spot, but they can still serve wine and beer at events. In fact, she’s looking into incorporating local brews for winter events. “We do like to drink beer here in Milwaukee,” Jacobus said.

According to the news release, The Spot 4MKE also received a lease extension for the next 6-12 months from the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee.

They are also in the process of setting up more permanent structures on the space. The Spot 4MKE began with temporary structures, including a giant Jenga tower, bean bag chairs, giant Lego™ bricks and umbrellas. But now more permanent structures are starting to pop up, including a trailer, picnic tables and more recently, trapezoid-shaped benches. The benches in particular will be part of a much larger, semi-pernament structure, as seen in the renderings below.

“I thinks that’s always been part of the vision,” Jacobus said. Permanent infrastructure allows people to enjoy the structures 24/7 while the temporary infrastructure requires more maintenance and staff to make sure that it’s stable and brought in and out of the space.

After the meeting, a poster board was plastered with suggestions written on sticky notes, ranging from used book sales, yoga classes and beach days in warmer weather and hot chocolate vendors, snowball fights and a curling rink in winter. Personally, I would love to see a movie night similar to Fish Fry and a Flick in the summer and a snowman-making contest in the winter.


Fall on the Spot

As for the event on the space itself that night, the event drummed up a modest number of people, but was a lot more vibrant than the space’s very first event in July. Many more activities were present to entice onlookers and entertain guests. MagneTag, which I covered here, gave guests young and old the opportunity to engage in some swashbuckling action. A few giant Lego™ blocks and mini pumpkins created the basis for some pumpkin bowling. Guests were able to warm up near a fire pit and even toast some marshmallows. Rounding out the event was face painting, music by D’Amato, a dance performance by Cedric Gardner of So You Think You Can Dance? and even karaoke complete with back-up dancers.

Final Thoughts

Another poster board after the meeting asked guests “The Spot 4MKE is..?” One person said “full of promise,” and another said “already active.” What did I write? “Slow yet steady.”

The Spot 4MKE has potential. Yet the space is slow in catching on, drawing only a good handful of people with each event. I can imagine people getting frustrated that the space isn’t attracting more activity despite all the hard work and money that went into it.

Personally, I’d love to see the entire surface parking lot turned into The Spot 4MKE, not just a fraction of it. Though the space is colorful and vibrant, it’s still surrounded by a dull, gray parking lot packed with cars. It would also attract more people if there were more things to do on a bigger space.

Creative Alliance, though, remains very confident and deliberate in their approach to the space. As Jacobus said, it’s an iterative process, continually growing and evolving.

How would you answer the question of “The Spot 4MKE is…?” What should be added to The Spot 4MKE for the summer and winter? Feel free to comment below.

And you can follow the events at The Spot 4MKE on their Facebook page.

Photos from the Event

Categories: Real Estate

11 thoughts on “Growing Pains for The Spot 4MKE”

  1. Ryan says:

    I agree with the writer, but I’ll expand a bit. No matter what they do with this limited space, the overwhelming sense is you are still in a corner of a parking lot. It matters little what color a portion of it is. So, the space needs to expand and its basic identity become a place where people go to read and talk and feel a part of the city, with some occasional special events thrown in. You don’t have to constantly entertain people. They are perfectly capable of providing their own.

  2. Nicely written article, Jack. Your comment of “slow by steady” is exactly the point of placemaking, not large, one-time or episodic events. Those are important in their own right and for a different purpose, but that’s not the purpose of The Spot 4MKE.

    Placemaking that is sustainable is about consistency. It may not result in large crowds, but that’s actually not the goal at this point. Consistency is. Consistency has to be established first for people to trust it is more than a flash in the pan and for true change to begin to take root. And, as PPS, says, “people attract people.”

    Since you’re reporting on this project on a regular basis, you really do need to understand the nuances of what success is for The Spot 4MKE and that we are NOT measuring success in solely in attendance. It’s dangerous to jump to assumptions and proclamations of “Success” “Not Success.” There is a culture in our city of shaming risk-takers by making a proclamation about their success too soon, which then stifles creativity and innovation. I know that’s not your intention, so I want to be sure you understand how we’re measuring success at The Spot 4MKE. We’re measuring success in consistent programming and presence, in the everyday moments of “collisions” of a cross-section of human beings and in the development of The Power of 10 http://www.pps.org/reference/the-power-of-10/ . As a reporter, you’re receiving invites to come to milestone programming at The Spot. That programming is part of ongoing activity that takes place multiple times a week, EVERY week. As a marketing and special events expert myself, I can tell you that it’s relatively easy to do a one-time blow-out event and attract hundreds of people, because all the promo, funding and work is concentrated. Ongoing, regular programming and presence sustained over time, especially at such a difficult location as the 5th and Wisconsin parking lot, is far, far more challenging. If it were easy, it would already be done! It takes patience, dedication, working a process (Creative Problem-Solving in this case), developing an ongoing feedback loop, refining, iterating and extensive, extensive collaboration. WAMDC, MKE Downtown, Westown, VISIT! Milwaukee, The Wisconsin Center, The Hilton Hotel, The City, DCD, DPW, 4th District, the artists you mention, plus literally HUNDREDS of other citizens and members of the creative community, funding community and more are working together to bring The Spot 4MKE to life. I encourage all who read this to not stand back and wait to pronounce if The Spot 4MKE “succeeds.” Get involved and be PART OF the success! This spot is FOR Milwaukee.
    http://www.thespot4mke.org/ https://www.facebook.com/TheSpot4MKE/

    I appreciate the dedication you have as a reporter, Jack, and that Urban Milwaukee has to covering projects, topics and issues that matter to Milwaukee. The reporting is excellent, because it’s deeply informed. The outlet is an incredibly important voice in Milwaukee.

  3. JT says:

    How much flexibility is there to take out asphalt and landscape the place?

    The space needs more nature.
    I asked my teenage daughter what the space needs and she said immediately: Shade. Trees.

    There is a limit to how hospitable one can get with concrete.
    If there’s some way to make the surface softer that could help.
    Movable planter boxes with seasonal or hardy plants would be helpful.
    And maybe somehow vertically define the edges to make the expanses of concrete all around less overwhelming.

    A curling rink in the winter would be somewhat incompatible with a soft surface, but also perfect for The Spot — look at those bold concentric circles!

    And in the summer, nightly ballroom dancing or aerobics or taichi or chess/games, like they have on the public squares in China?

    The columns for public input seem worth keeping active.

  4. AG says:

    I’d rather see a large convention hotel built here along with perhaps an apartment or mixed use building to bring more people to this part of WI ave. After all, there’s already 3 parks within 1-4 blocks of this site.

  5. Virginia Small says:

    The issue of process is a big one in creating public spaces. Part of that is also building consensus that such spaces to serve a downtown are even warranted and of value. While we have an amazing lakefront, Milwaukee has very little park space in downtown itself–about 30-some acres. But much research shows that high-quality public spaces located in dense areas are exceptional economic catalysts. The way to make sure they work though, is to engage the community in creating them–from the ground up.

    I applaud Maggie Jacobus and everyone who is slowly but steadily exploring what may be possible for a dynamic public space in an area that became blighted by ripping out the previous “urban fabric” about 25 years ago.

    I was intrigued to learn that Pioneer Courthouse Square, a much-used public space in the center of bustling Portland, Oregon, also evolved in fits and starts in a similar one-square-block vacant lot.


    And Milwaukee is indeed lucky to have gotten a grant from the Project for Public Spaces–they are experts on how to create–or re-imagine– spaces that people are drawn to and happily use. Their co-founder Holly Whyte did the research way back when and co-founder Fred Kent is still guiding that ship in their work around the world. They keep it simple and they focus on people.

    Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns likes to say that “from-the-ground-up change is smart, but chaotic, while top-down process is orderly but often stupid.” It takes courage to try to figure out what will serve people–and do it in public.

    I had great conversations with some of the people making this happen at a recent event at the Spot4MKE. Tia Richardson, who created a geometric ground mural, painted with the help of passersby, said she was moved by the way people threw themselves into the process, including taxi drivers and people who work in the area. Talk about “from-the -ground-up…”

  6. Candace says:

    If they sold coffee, I would stop by during my downtown work day and hang out for a while. What’s in the trailer? Are we supposed to go in there, or not? It would be cool if there were a swingset. I’ve seen some amazing adult swingsets online in public areas. Some interactive public art could also be fun. I look forward to seeing where this goes! Milwaukee needs more efforts like this! I like the pop of color downtown.

  7. Virginia Small says:

    @AG Perhaps a both/and mixed-use solution could work well, with a compelling public space as part of the high-visibility area. Organizers say pop-up commercial space is coming next spring to further seed activity.

    Great cities have sequences of parks of varying sizes, from tiny triangles to one-square-block squares to larger “signature” parks. (That sequencing was an Olmsted concept adopted by Milwaukee in some areas.) Size is not the key factor, but how comfortable, tended, accessible and well-used they are. MacArthur Square next to the municipal complex is fairly big but virtually abandoned for whatever reasons. That’s another saga and I rarely hear anyone even contemplating how to solve its overwhelming problems. Cathedral Square is much smaller but is used by daily visitors and for many programmed events. Some say it needs some upgrades and maybe is overused. O’Donnell has no formal programming but still draws many visitors because of its spectacular views and access to the lakefront and art museum.

    Downtown’s current development boom is an ideal time for big-picture thinking about how to make sure high-quality public spaces are productively woven into the “urban fabric.” Can existing parks function better? How can we get the most bang for the buck with new public spaces of various types and sizes?

  8. CarolV says:

    There’s a lot of potential in this space. As CAM’s Project Director on The Spot 4MKE I welcome student volunteers who need hours, artists who want to showcase their work and innovative thinking around how we add infrastructure and activate the space with consistency and variety – as well as how we can build a sustainable budget to pay creatives to do more Creative Artist in Residence programs like the pilot we just completed with Fonde Bridges and Mikal Floyd-Pruitt aka #TheConcreteDreamers. Successful Placemaking requires community input (what should we do here this fall:winter?), partnerships and investment. Thx for all your comments thus far – keep it coming! And follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram! @TheSpot4MKE EMAIL DIRECT carol@creativealliancemke.org anytime too!

  9. AG says:

    @Virginia Small, I do appreciate that this is trying to activate a hole in Wisconsin Ave. I’m just concerned that this will somehow interfere with a potential development on this land. There’s the Ziedler park about 200 ft south of this location which is a fine park. I do believe having a good park system is vital to our city… but lets remember that this project is, and always should be, temporary.

  10. Virginia Small says:

    AG, I’m not saying what should happen with this space. However, quality public spaces, even small ones, can be great economic catalysts. Moderne developer Rick Barrett has said “parks are a developer’s best friend.”


    Other factors have interfered with development of this land for decades. Former mayor Norquist recently suggested that dividing it into smaller parcels might increase development potential. Westown’s many super-blocks make it unfriendly for pedestrians, which in turn limits commerce. It will be great for the city if this part of downtown becomes more vital.

  11. gary says:

    I think Virginia Small’s points are right on the mark with a focus on flexibility of the space.
    But even as a parking lot the space needs consistent landscaping care which the downtown lots and even park settings don’t always show. A park-like setting can be inferred with islands of landscaping of understory trees floating in the asphalt magma — suburban parking lots do it with tree planters and planted dividers (or visit one small lot on N. Van Buren, between E. Kilbourn and E. State).

    As it’s long time and imposing neighbor to the west, does the Hilton management have an opinion? have they ever been approached for funding or sponsorship for additional landscaping? how about a huge asphalt mural mimicking a plaza? or why hasn’t that space been used regularly as the temporary weekend public market?

    That parking lot is rarely filled these days – I’ve walked across the lot in an unobstructed diagonal direction many times.

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