Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Cathedral Square Improvements, Century City Bailout Get First Approval

$16 million plan would repay debt, improve park, rebuild streets.

By - Feb 20th, 2020 05:00 pm
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Phases of improvement to Cathedral Square Park. Image from the City of Milwaukee/Cathedral Square Friends.

Phases of improvement to Cathedral Square Park. Image from the City of Milwaukee/Cathedral Square Friends.

A plan to modify three tax incremental financing (TIF) districts to fund streetscaping improvements at Cathedral Square Park, street repair and to bail out the underperforming Century City TIF district received its first approval Thursday afternoon.

The board of the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee unanimously endorsed amending the three districts after being briefed on the plan by Department of City Development (DCD) representatives.

The proposal would use excess incremental property tax revenue being generated by districts used to fund the Cathedral Place mixed-use building, Milwaukee Intermodal Station and early 2000s redevelopment of the Grand Avenue Mall. Without the amendments, the districts would close short of their 27-year legal life, having repaid associated debt, but the city would need to find $24.75 million to bail out the struggling Century City district.

Cathedral Square Plan

Cathedral Square Friends streetscaping suggestions. Image from Cathedral Square Friends.

Phase 1: Cathedral Square Friends streetscaping suggestions. Image from Cathedral Square Friends.

The Cathedral Place TIF district would be used to provide $1.85 million to rebuild the streetscaping around the exterior of Cathedral Square Park.

“If we have a central gathering spot in the city it’s probably Cathedral Square if it’s not the lakefront,” DCD economic development specialist Dan Casanova. “It’s getting pretty worn out.”

The project includes designing and implementing durable improvements to the city-owned land, including the sidewalk, terrace and curb, that surrounds the county-owned park.

“This is one of the last suggestions from the 2010 Downtown Plan that has yet be implemented,” said Casanova as he showed photos of the park in various states of disrepair, including trampled grass, degraded landscaping and the non-operable fountain.

Cathedral Square Friends, led by Urban Milwaukee publisher Dave Reid, was formed in 2015 to improve the park. It has a three-phase conceptual plan to overhaul the entire park. Reid said the future phases are conceptual and will involve community input and a master planning process.

Cathedral Square Park takes up a full city block, bordered by E. Kilbourn St., N. Jackson St., E. Wells St. and N. Jefferson St. It’s used for East Town Association‘s weekly Jazz in the Park music series, farmers’ market and mid-July Bastille Days Festival. The park is also part of Milwaukee Downtown’s annual holiday lights display and a handful of other festivals.

Showing the organization’s rendering, Casanova added: “This is not a final design, but these are the type of items we’re looking at.”

“I just wonder if the park itself is something that warrants greater financial support,” said Commissioner Kathryn West.

“We did look at that,” said Casanova, but he said more planning and outreach is needed to advance phases two and three of the organization’s plan to improve the park. “With the perimeter of the park, that thought was further along.” He said private donations and sponsors will be sought for the park’s interior.

For more on the Cathedral Square proposal, see our coverage from last week.

Park Photos and Streetscaping Conceptual Rendering

Century City Bailout

The three TIF districts would “donate” a total of $13.4 million to salvage the Century City TIF district. But more is likely to be needed in the future.

If everything had gone according to plan at Century City, new development would have raised property values and generated incremental property tax revenue that paid back $15.6 million in debt plus interest to date used to acquire, clean up and build new public infrastructure on the 84-acre campus once occupied by Tower Automotive. The district was expected to close in 2035, one year shy of its maximum legal life in 2036.

Instead district property values have fallen, even as companies like Talgo and Good City Brewing have moved into the area. As allowed by state law, the three districts will donate excess revenue to help retire the city’s TIF debt associated with the business park. A city report indicates the Century City TIF has $24.75 million in debt at the moment when financing and carrying costs are included.

Newmark Knight Frank Milwaukee office managing director Bruce Westling was critical of the plan to support Century City.

“Century City is a poster child [TIF] for ‘if you build, they will come,'” said Westling. He said the state is littered with underperforming districts, often with “gateway” in the name, that are failed attempts to create new business parks.

“Century City has to compete with not only competitive parks, but with internal politics as well,” said Westling. “The most recent loss of Strauss is beyond belief.”

He suggested a new plan was needed to bring business in. “What’s the gateway to Century City? In my mind, the answer is Capitol Drive. Which alderman has taken ownership of that corridor?” asked Westling. The street is split between multiple aldermanic districts. “Between 20th and 35th isn’t exactly the message we’re trying to send to people trying to bring jobs to the city.”

DCD redevelopment specialist Benji Timm said the city is working with the area business improvement district on a marketing plan for the broader area. He said the buildout of the Menomonee Valley took 20 years and Century City has only been available since 2014.

“Century City, it’s happening,” said Timm.

Board member Bill Schwartz asked what the area would be like today had the city not stepped in.

“That would have been southeastern Wisconsin’s biggest junkyard,” said Timm, noting that a scraping facility was proposed for the site before the city spent the funds to buy it. “We have a lot of viable companies at Century City now,” said Timm, ticking off a list of Talgo, Good City and Pak Technologies.

Westling, who has advocated for the creation of a number of TIF districts, said he was concerned the bailout would hurt support for the creation of future districts.

“I think [TIF] law is written for this purpose, for overperforming [TIFs] to help,” said development projects manager Lori Lutzka.

For more on the proposal, see our coverage from last week.

Street Repair

The amendments would also fund two street repair projects. State law allows districts to fund public infrastructure projects within a half mile of the district.

The Milwaukee Intermodal Station TIF district would be used to provide $170,000 for paving W. Wells St. from N. 6th St. to N. 12th St.

The Grand Avenue Mall district would contribute $388,000 to paving W. State St. between N. Old World Third St. and N. 9th St. and N. Broadway between E. Kilbourn Ave. and E. Juneau Ave. An additional $300,000 would be appropriated for “improvements to amenities on streets.”

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One thought on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Cathedral Square Improvements, Century City Bailout Get First Approval”

  1. Don Lobacz says:

    Seems to me projects like the Cathedral Square upgrade should include the permeable pavement/pavers…I guess I believe all new sidewalk/pavement in the city should be required to use it (or at least have a feasibility report why it can’t be used) in an effort to reduce storm water/sewage dumps into the lake.

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