Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Alderman Wants Debate On Proposed Third Ward Theater

But has Ald. Robert Bauman already lost the chance to create such a forum?

By - Dec 20th, 2021 04:18 pm
FPC Live Third Ward venue. Rendering by Eppstein Uhen Architects.

FPC Live Third Ward venue. Rendering by Eppstein Uhen Architects.

A proposal to build a new two-venue theater complex in the Historic Third Ward might get a public hearing after all. A rezoning request is pending before the Common Council. Without such a change, the project can be built without a formal public hearing.

“This is a humble attempt at getting a little more public input on a significant project,” said Alderman Robert Bauman, who has proposed the zoning change, in an interview. He represents the area where the complex would be built.

But Bauman’s proposed zoning choice, the city’s C9 designation used for many downtown properties, would still allow a theater as a permitted (“by right”) use. No public meetings are required for by-right proposals. The alderman said he was intending to also revise the broader code to make theaters above a certain size a limited use. A limited use means applicable proposals would need special approval from the Board of Zoning Approvals. The Third Ward proposal from FPC Live, targeted at touring live music acts, includes theaters with 800 and 4,000 guest capacities.

The exterior design aspects of the proposal were first reviewed by the Historic Third Ward Architectural Review Board, which Bauman chairs, last Wednesday. Attendees included individuals affiliated with competing venues The Rave and the Pabst Theater Group, but none spoke. Nor did the board take a formal vote. At the meeting, Bauman said a zoning change appeared to be the only way to ensure a truly public review. With no formal application submitted, Bauman said it appeared to be a race to see who could apply first.

On Monday he admitted he might have already lost.

“I think it might be late,” said Bauman of his request. Property owners can rely on the “vested right” legal concept, which establishes a point at which they cannot be subject to retroactive changes to the existing zoning or restrictions on their property. The 1.25-acre property is owned by Summerfest-host Milwaukee World Festival, Inc. and would be leased to an FPC Live affiliate. The Department of City Development is reportedly seeking a legal opinion from the City Attorney’s Office.

But Bauman would still like to see the area’s zoning change, even if the development is allowed to move forward as is. The site, which long held a factory, is currently zoned “Industrial – Mixed.” The flexible definition is often used for areas that are deindustrializing, but the Third Ward is now past that point.

Bauman still intends to pursue a change to the C9 zoning designation and the default permission of theaters. He noted the difference in scales between smaller venues commonly used by nonprofits and large concert venues. “The impacts can vary dramatically,” said Bauman. “There may be more of this stuff coming down the line.”

There are two anticipated venues for public comment on the proposal, but neither take the form of a formal hearing. They also have limited scopes. The architectural review board must still approve the final design. The City of Milwaukee’s Harbor Commission also must grant an easement.

As currently configured, the proposal requires an easement as it would not face a publically-platted street. While what appears to be a city street runs north-south just to the east of the site, it’s technically a private road on the festival grounds that MWF leases from the City of Milwaukee’s Harbor Commission.

The recorded easement would in part legally ensure police, fire and other emergency services can get to the landlocked parcel. But it would also serve to define what is the legal front of the parcel and building, which would govern its zoning compliance for things like glazing and egress. Port director Adam Tindall-Schlicht, at a port meeting Wednesday morning, said he didn’t expect the board to consider such a request until April.

Site Plan


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