The Design Competition That Wasn’t
Lakefront Gateway competition picked a team, not a design. So what will that mean for the lakefront?
The Gateway competition is over. A panel of prominent Milwaukeeans has spoken on the future of what could be the most important urban design project for this generation. The project that will be the centerpiece of Mayor Tom Barrett’s legacy, the one set in concrete. It’s price tag was supposed to be $25 to $35 million, though it’s open to question if anywhere near this amount can be raised.
The land where the proposed plaza would be built is surrounded by the densest concentration of cultural assets and wealth in Milwaukee, between the Milwaukee Art Museum and Discovery World, not to mention Summerfest just to the south. Together they probably constitute at least a quarter-billion-dollar investment which brings a couple million people to the lakefront each year.
The plan calls for a new bridge to span Lincoln Memorial Drive from the proposed high-rise, The Couture, to the lakefront. The linchpin of the Gateway project, the 44-story Couture will have 600 residents, high-end shopping, and a stop for the proposed street car. Just a block away Northwestern Mutual is adding a tower to their campus they say will bring 1,900 new jobs to Milwaukee; and a new high rise with 308 high-end apartments and 16 penthouse units.
Going into the competition, the heavy favorite to design the plaza was the team lead by James Corner Field Operations, an illustrious firm with the acclaimed High Line in Manhattan to its credit, and an international star in the field. James Corner’s reputation is much greater today than Calatrava’s, and he specializes in public spaces like our lakefront. Several of the “stakeholders” on the panel, as they were called, saw Corner’s interest in Milwaukee as a badge of honor, suggesting it was a measure of the success of the competition.
On paper it wasn’t much of competition. I thought Corner’s design was the most highly evolved, a category above the rest of the field. So did the design professionals I spoke with. It was like a college basketball team playing a high school. Corner teamed up with Milwaukee architects La Dallman and others.
Corner has designed waterfronts, plazas and parks all over the world. He has worked with the greatest gardeners in the world and spent years putting together the ingredients of public spaces. Corner was the obvious choice if either past work or the proposed design was the measure for what would succeed in Milwaukee.
Instead, the panel choose the home team, GRAEF, whose headquarters are just off the freeway by State Fair Park. GRAEF isn’t an architecture firm, but an engineering firm. They partnered with PFS Studio, a design firm out of Vancouver that has lots of experience with water features that were essential to GRAEF’s design. Jennifer Nagai of PFS wowed the panel, I’m told, though GRAEF’s proposal bears little resemblance to her firm’s past work.
GRAEF’s conceptual drawings still look like a mess to me. There are no concepts. Its a pastiche topped off by a grotesque work of art that slithers out of the bridge over Lincoln Memorial Drive. They buried Ned Kahn’s Wind Leaves, a fine work of public art, in a grove of trees, which is an obvious mistake that will not stand. The north face along Michigan St.. is still blank, though I noticed on the corner there is a water feature, a shower encased in cartoon-like structure.
I should have noticed that GRAEF’s proposal has more water flowing through it than all the rest of projects combined. That turned out to be a big selling point. The east section of their design is filled up with trees that spill over the extension of Michigan Street to link up with the Dan Kiley landscape in front of the art museum. This turns out to be awkward because GRAEF never figured out how to meld their swishy design with Kiley’s rectangles. They lost sight of the forest for the trees.
The panel members I interviewed said the designs shared with and voted on by public were not as important as the people on the team. In fact they didn’t refer to or even seem to remember the details of the submissions. Everyone emphasized they were only a starting point. In fact, I heard over and over again how all the finalists were equally fantastic. On paper it was a tie, which seems incredible to me.
As increasingly happens with architectural competitions, the design is just a brochure that gets you in the door where the real sales pitch begins. The panel members liked what they heard. Ron San Felippo (representing the Historic Third Ward) was impressed by how well GRAEF “understood Milwaukee.” Panel member Greg Patin of the Department of City Development noted that GRAEF had the most trees and water in the design. Said panelist David Marcus: “We picked the team, not the design.”
When I mentioned GRAEF’s sculpture to panel member Bob Greenstreet, Dean of the UW-Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning, he said, “Oh, that is just a placeholder.” He agreed the slithery art feature had to go. So much for the dominant motif of GRAEF’s proposal.
It clearly helped that GRAEF was local. Greenstreet said GRAEF was “reliable” and “predictable,” and had a “proven record of success in Milwaukee.” The panel was looking for someone they liked, a known quantity.
Not to mention that, according to Greenstreet, the panel was aware of the fee structures for the teams. Corner was obviously more expensive than GRAEF. The money issue, the fact that there is none so far, hung over the deliberations.
Panel member Don Smiley, CEO of Summerfest, thought highly of GRAEF’s “phasing approach,” which means you wouldn’t have to do it all at once. That, too, was a selling point with panel members. Barrett has never raised anywhere near $30 million dollars for a public space. No one would be surprised if only half of the project gets built.
Joe Ullrich, vice-president of US Bank, said he “felt comfortable” with GRAEF and thought they would be “easy to work with.” “They understood the nature of the people and the local landscape.” Referring to the Corner proposal, he said, “That might work in New York, it’s cool and it grabs my attention but it is not practical. Milwaukee has its own personality and you don’t want to force it to be something it is not.”
GRAEF also teamed up with Rinka Chung Architecture, who are the architects of The Couture, the linchpin of the project, which according to their website will include “plazas and parks, a stop for the streetcar, and pedestrian bridges.” All of this was decided before the competition even started. In other words, it appears as if the public is providing free land to complement The Couture and then funding the completion of a plaza on the land. Though, at this point, it’s not clear how much public money will fund the project.
Greenstreet called Rinka Chung “rising stars in Milwaukee.” They just finished The Moderne, the last tall building in Milwaukee by the same developer, Rick Barrett, as The Couture. Local architect and panel Greg Uhen was an influential proponent of GRAEF in this competition, and has done work for Summerfest.
It all sounds pretty cozy. But I believe the panel members, all of whom thought everything was completely above board, took their responsibilities very seriously, and were impressed with the process (and, you sensed, with each other).
As one panel member described the process, “we worked together like a corporation.”
“It wasn’t personal,” Smiley said, “I was representing Summerfest, voted what would be good for Summerfest.” Joel Brennan, CEO of Discovery World, seconded that idea: “you are representing your institutional interests.” Other panel members include Sandy Botcher, a vice-president at nearby Northwestern Mutual and Marcus, who runs Marcus Investments and whose family runs the Marcus Corp, which funded the Marcus Amphitheater at Summerfest. (Marcus was chosen because he is a board member of the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum.)
But what’s good for the stakeholders, for say, Summerfest, may not be what’s best for the public. When asked about the difference between Corner and GRAEF’s plans, several of the panelists talked about traffic flow on the pedestrian bridge. Corner’s proposal tilted the bridge north toward the art museum and east to the lake. GRAEF looked south, providing two off ramps to Summerfest.
Stakeholders, as you’d expect, looked at the Lakefront Gateway more as a pro-development real estate project rather than a public space. The flow of people from downtown offices and residences to Summerfest was more important than the rest of us who on a whim wander the lakefront. (It also places Summerfest above the Calatrava, which is often used as the new symbol of the city; the art museum’s leader, Dan Keegan, voted for Corner, a panelist told me.)
Yet the role of Greenstreet and Uhen, two of the three architecture professionals, may have been decisive in the process. Panel members all raved about these two. “They are experts,” Smiley emphasized. From the beginning Greenstreet and Uhen favored the GRAEF proposal, panel members said. And Uhen’s company, Eppstein Uhen Architects, says on its website that it has done work with GRAEF on the Bayshore Town Center.
GRAEF’s plan looked to me like a suburban capitalist solution to an urban socialist problem. But who knows what will happen? GRAEF team member PFS does really good work, which was not reflected in the plan submitted to the panel. No one I talked to knows who the client will be (Barrett, Department of City Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux, or…?) who will manage this project and who will be the executive who can tell the GRAEF team that slithery purple monstrosity in the proposed design has to go.(Greenstreet told me that he would.)
All the panel members raved about all the development happening near the lakefront and how the area is being transformed. The optimism is palpable. But at this point the only money mentioned has been a $3 million city tax incremental financing district. There is still a good chance that nothing will happen or the project will be greatly reduced in cost and scale. Nor is it clear the stakeholders chosen for this panel will pony up any money. When I asked Ullrich if his bank was going to contribute, he said, “it’s not on our radar” and noted how much his company already pays in property taxes.
The art museum raised more than $100 million in donations for the Calatrava addition by exciting philanthropists with a design. At this point the Gateway project will mostly be selling a team. After all the hubbub about the design competition, we don’t really have a design. Until we do, raising that money could be tough.