5 Things Milwaukee Should Steal from Detroit
Yes, Detroit has huge problems, but also some creative innovations worth considering.
Detroit, long a punching bag for Rust Belt critics, is on the rise. While many of the challenges the city faces seem insurmountable, there are signs of life everywhere you look, which I learned while visiting the city. A wave of reinvestment is reinvigorating its Downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. The city, which has lost over half its population since 1950, has emerged from a high-profile bankruptcy with a city budget that constrains leaders to focus on small things like fix potholes and streetlights. Yet, while big challenges remain, the city’s future seems substantially brighter than it did five years ago. What can Milwaukee do to appropriate some of that Motor City momentum?
1. Capture the Can-Do Attitude
Detroit’s civic spirit can serve as an inspiration for Milwaukee. Talk to all but Milwaukee’s biggest boosters, and they’ll tell you the city is improving, but still faces plenty of challenges. In Detroit everyone I talked to, from bartenders to random people on the street, boasted about their city, even if they were standing in front of an abandoned building while doing so. This isn’t a call to ignore Milwaukee’s problems, it’s a call to sell Milwaukee’s strengths.
In Detroit, that attitude allowed people like Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert to buy up a substantial number of derelict properties in downtown Detroit with the intent of reinvigorating the dormant city center. Between my 2013 visit and more recent visits, the rise of such investment is clearly visible through the number of rehabbed buildings and amount of new construction happening. While Milwaukee hems and haws for years over things like the streetcar, Detroit fast-tracks new investments like their new light rail system, M-1 RAIL and a new hockey arena (and surrounding development).
I’m not advocating throwing caution to the wind, but it would seem Detroit’s civic spirit emphasizes doing more and doing it faster than Milwaukee’s. I mean, how long has Milwaukee discussed maybe, just maybe, changing the city flag?
2. Expand the Public Market
Detroit’s Eastern Market is an open-air market located across a freeway interchange from its Downtown. The market itself is thriving, drawing customers from the city and suburbs as well tourists. But viewing the Eastern Market as a stand-alone entity misses the point. What makes things really work is how the market serves as a neighborhood hub, the central mixing point in what would otherwise be rows of mostly-empty warehouses.
Oriented around the market, a welcome mix of wholesale food dealers (meat markets, bulk produce sellers, etc.) exist on the same streets with a growing cadre of shops and restaurants. You can park once and buy a Detroit t-shirt, ribs for the grill and flowers for the garden, then stop for pizza before heading home.
To bridge the gap between East Town and the Historic Third Ward, vendors could be added along N. Water St. under the rebuilt Interstate 794 freeway. These vendors will connect the Milwaukee Public Market with the hotel currently being developed in the historic Button Block building on E. Clybourn St.
To better connect the Historic Third Ward with the market, a pedestrian-oriented building could be developed in the large surface parking lot immediately south of Cafe Benelux to provide space for more commercial tenants. While it’s unlikely Milwaukee will see Broadway return to its historic use as a marketplace for produce vendors, the Historic Third Ward is one of the few places in Greater Downtown where retail stores thrive and it would be wise to build on that.
The Eastern Market provides a guide to think of the Milwaukee Public Market as more than just a single building. It’s time for the market to take the next step.
3. Take Advantage of “Game Days”
“Game days” as defined by Michigan residents I’ve encountered include everything from Monday Night Football for the Detroit Lions to big concerts, and Downtown Detroit does a good job of rolling out the red carpet on those days. On the flip side, Milwaukee does a fairly poor job of getting visitors to circulate around Downtown when big events roll into town. Sure, the Historic Third Ward gets overrun during Summerfest, but during the same time things aren’t very different in East Town and the needle barely moves in Westown. How does Detroit get visitors to experience all of Downtown?
One, taverns and restaurants are a bit more uniformly dispersed. I’m not advocating closing half of the Water Street bars, but instead suggesting more bars might open in key locations, for instance on W. Wisconsin Ave.
Two, Detroit’s main street, Woodward Ave., is more appealing to walk down. There are attractive parks, public art, storefronts, hotels, bars and much more. Wisconsin Ave. in Milwaukee has pockets of activity, but lacks a welcoming street presence for much of its length. Some taverns would help. More food and drink options could play a big role in making Wisconsin Avenue more appealing.
Third, the elevated Detroit People Mover, despite only running in a circle, allows people to easily jump from one end of Downtown to the other. The Milwaukee Streetcar, especially if extensions are built, should address much of this problem. The bus system in Milwaukee today (as with Detroit’s) doesn’t present a particularly attractive or easy way to circulate around Downtown.
Finally, Detroit’s marquee event venues encourage you to walk out the front door and go somewhere else. Hart Plaza, home of the Movement Electronic Festival (a small-scale Summerfest) and other events, allows you to walk across the street and be in the heart of the city. The professional baseball and football stadiums spill out into Greektown and others area in downtown Detroit.
To bridge the gap in Milwaukee, effort should be made to reduce the height difference that separates Downtown from the lakefront and festival grounds. Making it more appealing to walk from Summerfest to Downtown, as the Lakefront Gateway Project aims to do, would drive more visitors to spend more time in Milwaukee. On the other end of Downtown, efforts should be made to ensure the Milwaukee Bucks new Live Block entertainment development is connected to the surrounding city and appealing to walk to and from.
4. Build a Downtown Beach
Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit is located at the center of the city’s street grid. It’s owned by the city, which created a series of radial streets that start at the park’s borders; way-finding in the entire city is based on the park’s location. The famous Eight Mile Road is eight miles from the park. Point being, the park occupies a very prominent location. It’s also covered in sand.
Following a 2013 Southwest Airlines grant (similar to the one that paid for the underwhelming and now-closed The Spot 4MKE), Detroit installed a sand beach at the park. A large fountain serves as the only water in the area, but still people flock to it. Why? It’s a well-designed, unique park. It’s a great place to bring kids to play during the day, and provides parents plenty of places to sit, either out in the sun, under umbrellas or shaded by a number of trees that separate the park from the street. A cafe provides food and refreshments to visitors. At night it becomes a great open-air bar. It’s not big enough to get out of control, but it’s spacious enough to come with a group of friends and have a good time. In the winter, a portion of the park converts to an ice skating rink.
Despite the inherent oddity in having a beach with no water, it just feels right. Contrast that with many of Milwaukee’s downtown parks, which feel almost forgotten. Juneau Park is a dead space with no access to the lake, and whose trees actually block the view of the lake. Pere Marquette Park hosts River Rhythms and Oktoberfest, but beyond that is it a space you really want to hang out in? Cathedral Square Park is known for Jazz in the Park and the East Town Market, but otherwise feels worn down, with only a few picnic tables to liven it up. Zeidler Union Square would be all but forgotten if not for Westown Association‘s Wednesday farmers’ market. And we hardly need to mention the almost-parks like Postman Square at W. Wells St. and N. Plankinton Ave. or the parking lot at N. 4th St. and W. Wisconsin Ave.
Milwaukee doesn’t have to literally build a downtown beach, though it’s well worth considering. Detroit has shown that a well-conceived, adaptable design for an urban park can create a great public gathering space and a focal point for downtown.
5. Embrace Your Brand
One subtle thing Detroit does is embrace the Detroit brand. Everywhere you turn someone is wearing a t-shirt that says Detroit, wearing a Detroit Tigers hat or flying a Detroit Red Wings flag. It’s as if there is a law that requires Michigan residents to display Detroit pride once they cross the city limits.
Milwaukee has taken baby steps towards this by embracing the Milwaukee Home brand, but what stands out in Detroit is the diversity of designs. Most notably, they all prominently include the word Detroit. Milwaukeeans can display a lot more pride in their city.
Look for the other side of this argument later this week: 5 Things Milwaukee Shouldn’t Steal from Detroit.