Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Deer District Concert Venue Wins First Approval, Despite Objections

Other concert venues fight Live Nation's entrance into Milwaukee market.

By - Sep 26th, 2022 06:31 pm
FPC's proposed Deer District venue. Rendering by Eppstein Uhen Architects.

FPC’s proposed Deer District venue. Rendering by Eppstein Uhen Architects.

The proposal from Frank Productions, Live Nation and the Milwaukee Bucks to develop a new concert venue across from Fiserv Forum gained its first public approval Monday, but not before a substantial number of community members affiliated with other music venues testified in opposition.

Focused on live music acts with primarily standing crowds, the complex would have halls with capacities of 800 and 4,000 people. Madison-based Frank Productions would own and operate the facility through its FPC Live subsidiary, a partnership of Frank and the nation’s largest concert promoter and ticketing company Live Nation.

Described as a $50 million project, it would be built on the corner of N. Vel R. Phillips Ave. and W. Highland Ave. on a vacant lot once occupied by the Bradley Center.

A zoning change is necessary to enable any development on the former Bradley Center site as part of the 2016 arena zoning agreement. With two abstentions and two votes in opposition, the City Plan Commission narrowly recommended the Common Council approve the change. The council’s zoning committee will next host a formal public hearing, before the full council will vote on whether to approve the project. The proposal would also need council approval for a liquor license. Area alderman Robert Bauman did not speak at Monday’s hearing.

Opponents of the development, working as a coalition known as Save MKE’s Music Scene, told the commission that the development would harm the economic viability of their venues, hinder downtown security because it lacks a crowd-control plan for fans waiting to enter the complex and would not increase the number of shows in Milwaukee, but would steer the many touring acts booked with Live Nation to the venue.

“This is an endurance game to see who can stay in business longer while losing money,” said promoter Adam Peterman.

“Nobody is asking for this venue,” said attorney David Halbrooks.

“They’re going to create one overwhelming monster like Walmart that comes in and wipes out the promoters,” said Save MKE’s Music Scene’s attorney John Wirth.

But Department of City Development planning manager Sam Leichtling said his department was recommending approval based on the design of the proposal and its consistency with the downtown area plan.

“Historically and currently we have not used the zoning ordinance to restrict competition between private entities,” said Leichtling. He said a traffic study for the development was still outstanding, but that it would focus on things like signal timings and loading zones.

Attorney Brian Randall, representing FPC, said the proposal meets the requirements of the base 2016 zoning package (general planned development) the council approved.

Architects Greg Uhen and Troy Jacoby detailed the complex’s design, which includes expanding the Deer District plaza southwest, building privately-owned street and loading docks on the building’s west side and planning for a future building on the east side across from Turner Hall.

The larger room would have four levels. The first floor would be primarily a standing-room-only hall. The second floor would have balcony seating on three sides and a VIP area with a private outdoor balcony. A mezzanine level would be even higher, with seating but no bars or outdoor decks. At the top of the structure would be a suite level with private suite boxes overlooking the concert hall and a large outdoor deck to the north.

The smaller room would contain much less seating on the balcony level, but it would have an accessible outdoor balcony. Nothing is included on the third (“mezzanine”) level, but the fourth level of that space includes an office suite and artist green rooms with connected outdoor deck.

A space along N. Vel R. Phillips Ave. would be set aside for a 38-foot-tall, 10,000-square-foot building. “We would like to construct it concurrently with the larger music venue,” said Bucks President Peter Feigin. “We find this parcel is beyond marketable.”

But project opponents raised concerns that the building could be several years away, leaving a blank wall that the design team said was intended to be covered up.

Project opponents also raised concerns that the south and west sides of the complex, largely windowless walls, would also be exposed for years.

That drew the interest of at least one of the commissioners.

“If it’s going to be just a precast [concrete] tilt up for the next 20 years, that’s going to be a pretty terrible condition,” said commissioner and architect Allyson Nemec of the south wall. She said she would be more comfortable if the Bucks were advancing developments on the east side along N. Vel R. Phillips Ave. and on the south along W. State St.

Feigin said he hoped to bring forward a proposal within “a few months,” but Wirth said the Bucks aren’t accepting food or beverage tenants, which limits options to their neighborhoods.

Uhen said the east wall isn’t a blank concrete wall, but would be brick. “Which almost makes me think it’s going to be there forever,” said Nemec. A landscaping plan calls for trees to be planted.

“We completely understand,” said Feigin. “We will invest in it today, but it’s not nice enough to remain forever.” Uhen said a similar situation existed on the west side of the arena parking structure, but was covered before the arena opened by the Five Fifty Ultra Lofts.

A future building on the east side of the complex would require additional zoning approval and, as is included in the arena zoning package, need to work with the design of the Turner Hall structure.

Save MKE’s Music Scene leader Craig Peterson raised concern about the surge in downtown shootings, some of which have been tied to events at Deer District, and the nature of the standing-room venues drawing long outdoor lines hours before the shows.

Commissioner Ranell Washington said he had some reservations about the project moving forward given the testimony in opposition and concerns about neighborhood safety, but moved approval. But his motion failed to find a second.

FPC President Joel Plant defended the economics of the concert venue. He said his company has been working on the complex since 2019, including a months-long public consideration of a Historic Third Ward site and private consideration of developing it in the proposed Iron District.

Plant told the commission that economically, his company had done extensive market research. That includes booking shows at a number of local venues, a number of which he said have stopped taking FPC’s business in recent months. “We are absolutely confident that Milwaukee is an underserved music community,” said Plant.

He called an attempt to oppose his venue by Pabst Theater Group president Gary Witt “ironic” and “disingenuous” given that Witt is working to build a new venue as part of the Iron District proposal with Live Nation’s largest competitor AEG.

“The other members of our group haven’t opposed his venue because we believe in free competition in the marketplace,” said Wirth. He said the group’s members have opposed the “10,000-pound gorilla” that is the Live Nation and Ticketmaster conglomerate. “If Frank Productions wasn’t part of Live Nation we wouldn’t be here fighting with them.”

After nearly another hour of debate after Washington’s first motion, which included an appearance from DCD Commissioner Lafayette Crump and a suggestion to focus on only the land-use aspects, the commission returned to debating motions and walls.

Feigin said the development was amenable to improving the east wall and lot. Nemec also pushed for improvements to the south lot, targeted for a future, larger building. She said it would keep egg off the face of the commission should development not progress.

The commission ultimately voted for a revised motion for approval from Washington, with Nemec and Willie Smith in opposition. Chair Stephanie Bloomingdale, head of the AFL CIO of Wisconsin, recused herself because she said she works with one of the groups.

Commissioner Tarik Moody, an employee of Radio Milwaukee, recused himself from the vote because he said his employer would benefit from the new venue. But he did tell the commission that Radio Milwaukee’s new HYFIN station expected to see more artists featured on the urban alternative station come to the city as a result of the venue. Moody tried to speak again later to say he goes to Chicago regularly for concerts, but Bloomingdale said his recusal prohibited his participation.

Before the hearing, the development team announced that a partnership of Miron Construction and JCP Construction would construct the venue. The current plan calls for the venue to open in early 2024.

September Renderings

August Renderings and Site Plan

2 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Deer District Concert Venue Wins First Approval, Despite Objections”

  1. Colin says:

    Umm, the forum is already a huge venue?? Why bother building another right next to it? Not to mention lots of ugly unusable structure on most of the block, nothing for pedestrians to see or do.

  2. Polaris says:

    The Deer District is at an inflection point in its development, after which there will be no turning back.

    It is moving evermore away from its original vision as a mixed-use neighborhood and toward becoming another destination entertainment/nightlife area. Not awful in and of itself, but putting a couple of concert venues here, I believe, will only serve to amp up the energy–much of it alcohol-fueled–making the area less attractive to other uses. This combined with the MLK Jr. Drive and north Water Street bar scenes really just turns the entire northwest side of downtown into a loud, sloshy mess at night and little-occupied most other times.

    New office space in downtown is a tough proposition these days and, frankly, so is conventional retail. However, I wish the Bucks could find it in their hearts and imaginations to focus on residential, live-work, co-working and student housing spaces (and also commercial) to the greatest extent possible. Residential will drive the desire for other amenities outside of hotels and bars. Think about other possible nonprofit neighbors. The Bucks already know this. They started with the Froedtert-Medical College and residential loft projects to the north and they had to be instrumental getting the Museum to relocate to the north.

    We will soon find out which way the Deer District is headed.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us