Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

A Town Square for Downtown Milwaukee

City proposes Vel R. Phillips Plaza along W. Wisconsin Ave. with cafe and streetcar stop.

By - May 14th, 2019 06:11 pm
Vel R. Phillips Plaza rendering. Rendering by TKWA UrbanLab.

Vel R. Phillips Plaza rendering. Rendering by TKWA UrbanLab.

City officials want to see a true gathering place built along the city’s main street in the heart of Downtown.

Mayor Tom Barrett, flanked by five members of the Common Council, introduced plans Tuesday afternoon to create the Vel R. Phillips Plaza on W. Wisconsin Ave. across from the convention center. The park, which would include a large plaza, cafe, streetcar station, bus stop and green space, would be built on a city-owned surface parking lot between N. Vel R. Phillips Ave. (the old 4th St.) and N. 5th St. in the Westown neighborhood.

“We are here today because this has been an eyesore for many, many years,” said Barrett of the current surface parking lot. Barrett says he envisions the space as a central gathering space for food trucks and public events. A small building on the site could host a beer garden and cafe. A farmers’ market and a host of other events could be held in the plaza.

The city would build the plaza, estimated to cost $5 million, as part of an effort to extend The Hop to the intersection of N. Vel R. Phillips Ave. and W. Wisconsin Ave. in time for the 2020 Democratic National Convention.

It would be funded by an amendment to a tax-incremental financing district that the city is proposing as part of funding an extension of the streetcar to the plaza and a study of extending the system to Fiserv Forum, Bronzeville and Walker’s Point. “As soon as we get these extensions done, we want to do even more extensions,” said Barrett.

As part of the development, the city would continue to seek a private developer for an approximately 60,000-square-foot lot formed by the remainder of the surface parking lot.

The plaza is being designed by architect Chris Socha of TKWA UrbanLab. Socha, who is also leading the design on the redevelopment of Grand Avenue Mall, is working with landscape architect Ken Saiki and engineering firm HNTB on the project.

The footprint of the park would extend beyond the boundaries of the surface parking lot. “Raised tables” would be installed in W. Wisconsin Ave, which would place the entire surface from the sidewalk in front of the convention center to the plaza on the same level. The design element is intended to unify the spaces and encourage pedestrian connectivity between the plaza and the surrounding area. It should also encourage drivers to slow down as they approach the plaza.

“We used the word ‘bootstrapping’ a lot. How do you fit into what’s already happening?” said Socha of the design vision. “When you look at some of the pieces of the puzzle that are coming together, we tried to tie into that,” said HNTB streetcar practice leader Ashley Booth. Three key projects are under construction to the east of the hotel, the redevelopment of the former Grand Avenue Mall, the development of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s new music hall in the former Grand Warner Theatre and the redevelopment of the Boston Store building into the Hub640 office complex.

The plaza is also deliberately designed to connect with its western flank, downtown’s largest hotel, the Hilton City Center. “The Hilton is the one thing you can always count on,” said Socha. As such, the plaza’s cafe is planned to be closest to the hotel’s front door. A raised table is also planned on N. 5th St. to guide pedestrians into the plaza.

Socha said he looked across the globe for design inspiration, finding a key example in Strasbourg, France. Place de L’Homme-de-Fer deals with many of the same challenges the city’s proposal does said Socha, including linking bus and rail systems and interacting with a busy street.

The adjacent bus stops in Westown are some of the busier stops Downtown, but would see a large increase in usage if Milwaukee County’s East-West Bus Rapid Transit project is approved. Stops for the system are planned on the edge of the plaza.

Director Park in Portland, Oregon, an urban plaza atop an underground parking garage, was also used for inspiration. That park includes a cafe that pays approximately $24,000 in rent annually.

The Department of City Development would issue a request for proposals for an operator of the 3,000-square-foot cafe building if the project is approved. Public restrooms would be included in the facility.

The city is exploring options for porous pavement that would support trees and other greenery in the otherwise hardscaped plaza.

Area Alderman Robert Bauman, a champion of the short streetcar extension and the connectivity he believes it would bring, said when he was first elected almost 16 years ago the parking lot and W. Wisconsin Ave. were a source of constant complaint. “The frequent refrain was ‘you can roll a bowling ball down the street and not hit anyone.'” Not anymore said Bauman.


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The Story Behind The Name

The plaza, like the street next to it, would be named for the recently deceased Vel Phillips. The civil rights trailblazer was the first black woman to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Law School, and the first woman and first African American elected to the Common Council. She was also the first female judge on the Milwaukee County Circuit Court and the first African American judge in Wisconsin. In 1978 Phillips became the first woman elected to the office of Secretary of State, becoming the first African American to ever win a statewide election.

“Vel Phillips was about people,” said Barrett. “She cared about people. She loved people.”

Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs, who was mentored by Phillips, said it was important that a park named after Phillips was located in a prominent location.

She was also careful to select N. 4th St., which goes through Phillips’ former district and Downtown, as the street to name after Phillips. “To my knowledge, it’s the longest street in the state named after an African American,” said Coggs.

Barrett was joined at the event by council members Bauman, Coggs, Nik Kovac, Cavalier Johnson and Chantia Lewis. Phillips’ son Michael D. Phillips along with Phillips’ goddaughter Millie Colby.

For more on Phillips and her legacy, see our piece from April 2018.

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