Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

City Has $16 Million Plan For Downtown Plaza

Vel R. Phillips Plaza would honor civil rights pioneer, anchor W. Wisconsin Ave. Will it serve streetcar?

By - Mar 10th, 2023 04:59 pm
Then council members Nik Kovac and Cavalier Johnson (now budget director and mayor) look at a plan for Vel R. Phillips Plaza in 2019. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Then council members Nik Kovac and Cavalier Johnson (now budget director and mayor) look at a plan for Vel R. Phillips Plaza in 2019. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A planned downtown park would honor late civil rights pioneer Vel Phillips.

First introduced in 2019, the proposal calls for a large plaza to be built atop what is currently a city-owned parking lot at W. Wisconsin Ave. and N. Vel R. Phillips Ave.

And Mayor Cavalier Johnson‘s administration believes it now has the funding to advance the project, but at a much greater cost than initially thought.

“The City of Milwaukee is prepared to move forward on the Vel R. Phillips Plaza that will add to the positive momentum taking place in the Westown neighborhood, which is witnessing a string of exciting development, investment, and activity,” said Johnson in introducing a funding plan for the idea. “I am a strong supporter of gathering places and plazas. From economic development benefits and expanded public transit connections, to cultural and educational opportunities that are accessible for all, gathering places enhance the quality of life in our communities. As the nation recognizes and celebrates Women’s History Month, I am looking forward to this plaza honoring the legacy, activism, and public service of Vel R. Phillips, as well as providing a dynamic and active gathering place for the community to utilize and enjoy for years to come.”

The 30,000-square-foot plaza would include a 2,900-square-foot food or beverage retail space, manicured garden, a flexible space for farmers markets and other events, an informational kiosk, public art installations and a station on Milwaukee County’s Connect bus-rapid transit line. Approximately 50,000 square feet of the city-owned property, 401-441 W. Wisconsin Ave., would be preserved for future, private development.

The plaza was initially proposed as part of extending the streetcar through the site. In 2019, it had an estimated cost of $5 million. The funding allocated to the project now exceeds $16.50 million.

The Department of City Development (DCD) is proposing to fund the improvements with $15.75 million from the overperforming Park East tax incremental financing district. It also previously allocated $750,000 from the tax incremental financing district used to support Fiserv’s move to downtown. Milwaukee County is also poised to spend additional funds on improving bus rapid transit stations along its nine-mile route.

A DCD official attributed the increased costs to an enhanced plaza design, inflation and rising construction costs and the removal of previously unknown contaminated soils at the site. An additional $4.35 million would be used for nearby street infrastructure improvements and $500,000 would be put aside to fund property improvements to attract or retain commercial tenants in the area through existing city programs.

Initially created in 2002, state law requires the Park East district to close in 2029. As of 2021, the last year for which an annual report is available, the district had created $338.5 million in incremental value, exceeding an initial plan of $163.9 million. It was initially created to fund the recreation of the street grid following the demolition of the Park East Freeway, and has been subsequently used to support a number of developments in the corridor.

State law limits spending on public improvements to within a half mile of a TIF district’s boundaries, which the plaza narrowly meets.

Who Was Vel Phillips?

Phillips 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. She passed away in 2018, with the council voting to rename N. 4th St. in her honor.

Phillips’ son Michael D. Phillips praised the plaza plan in a city press release.

Where Did The Streetcar Go?

DCD is expected to reveal updated renderings of the plaza at the March 16 meeting of the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee as part of a review of the TIF spending proposal. But there will be one thing missing says area Alderman Robert Bauman: the streetcar.

In an interview with Urban Milwaukee, Bauman raised concern that not including any component of the streetcar line would cause its costs to only escalate unnecessarily in the future and would send a signal that the city isn’t serious about pursuing any extensions.

There is precedent for planning ahead: the city rebuilt the St. Paul Ave. bridge in 2013 with a track alignment in place for the then-planned system. But the new plaza plan, said Bauman, doesn’t even go that far.

“I think this is a signal there will be no streetcar extensions under this mayor,” said Bauman of Cavalier Johnson, whom he previously endorsed. Johnson supported extending the streetcar while on the council and the campaign trail, but has been quiet on the topic since he began aggressively pursuing a solution to the city’s fiscal issues from the Republican-controlled Wisconsin State Legislature.

“This was an easy one,” said Bauman of the original plaza plan. “We came up with the idea of the plaza to serve two purposes.”

The original plan called for the streetcar to loop north from the Milwaukee Intermodal Station through the site. A future northward extension to Fiserv Forum and Bronzeville would continue on, but the plaza would also create a turnaround point if that extension was delayed or abandoned. The plaza would also honor one of the most prominent Black Wisconsin residents.

The alderman said the 0.3-mile extension to Wisconsin Avenue was a “no brainer” given that it provided access to the convention center, The Avenue, 3rd Street Market Hall, Bradley Symphony Center, new Fiserv headquarters and a host of other Westown businesses.

What does the administration think?

“The proposed design of the plaza – like the design of Deer District – accommodates future transit improvements,” said a DCD spokesperson.

2019 Plaza Renderings

2019 Plaza Site Photos

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More about the Milwaukee Streetcar

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3 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: City Has $16 Million Plan For Downtown Plaza”

  1. DAGDAG says:

    Milwaukee needs $15 million to demolish NORTHRIDGE. They say that they do not have the money. If they have $16.5 million for this project…maybe they do have enough money after all. I am starting to wonder what they put their priorities on, or is in just hype about not being able to afford things?

  2. Polaris says:

    Interesting development–can’t wait to see the revised plans! That Park East TIF District sure does come in handy; wonderful that the Phillips Plaza project falls just within the half-mile mark of the District to benefit from this. (And, interested to know what the increased costs will get downtown Milwaukee.)

    Yeah, it’s a bummer that the City hasn’t been able to secure federal TIGER/RAISE funds for The Hop extension, but it sure does seem Milwaukee got a black eye with the feds after Barrett Lo failed to find timely funding for The Couture, causing years of delay in the City’s use of that TIGER grant. Good to hear the other week that Mayor Johnson has moved on from trying and failing to get that type of funding.

    Meanwhile, now is the time to pile onto the Westown love fest and activate this desolate block with something. Forty years of surface parking and failed project proposals–almost 20 years of which have happened on Alder Bauman’s watch. Glad that Milwaukee’s newly elected Mayor is stepping out wearing his freshly shined 2023 shoes and deciding that the Avenue-Milwaukee Tool-Fiserv-Kohl’s-BRT Connect-Baird Center train is worth hopping on now despite the fact that The Hop extension has yet to leave the station. Meanwhile, true to brand, Bauman is alone on the corner still wearing his 2019 gum-soled loafers wondering why the train isn’t stopping for him.

    Now who’s Milwaukee’s tool?

  3. lobk says:

    Love the idea of Vel R. Phillips Plaza, but the streetcar must be a part of it. Don’t understand why some financial support can’t come from the Wisconsin Center District, since the Hop extension would benefit the convention center. Furthermore, the Bucks organization, which has experienced dramatic growth in value, should have more than enough incentive to put a substantial stake into getting the streetcar extended to at least Highland. They count on us to put our dollars into their grand venue. How about putting some money into a Hop extension that directly benefits them?

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