Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

New Design For Vel R. Phillips Plaza Revealed

Redevelopment Authority endorses $16.5 million financing plan.

By - Mar 16th, 2023 03:36 pm
Vel R. Phillips Plaza. Rendering by TKWA.

Vel R. Phillips Plaza. Rendering by TKWA.

Two thumbs up for the revamped plan to replace a downtown surface parking lot with a new park, food and beverage space and future development site.

On Thursday, the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee (RACM) unanimously endorsed a $16 million financing plan to develop Vel R. Phillips Plaza at 401 W. Wisconsin Ave.

“It’s really going to be a plaza unlike anything we’ve seen in the city to date,” said Department of City Development economic development specialist Dan Casanova. “It’s a major priority of Mayor Cavalier Johnson in his efforts to create new and improved public spaces throughout the community.”

Located across the street from the convention center, 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. Space would be reserved through the site for a future streetcar line north to Fiserv Forum and Bronzeville.

Casanova said securing a food or beverage vendor to activate the space would help guide its success. The building, located near N. 5th St., would also include public restrooms to help support area events. The DCD representative said the city expects events like the Milwaukee Night Market to be extended west onto the site.

A raised intersection would be installed near the northeast corner of the plaza at W. Wisconsin Ave. and N. Vel R. Phillips Ave. It would draw visibility to the area and slow traffic. “It would also make it easier for pedestrians to cross between the plaza and convention center,” said Casanova.

A number of new developments are occurring nearby, including the Wisconsin Center’s $456 million expansion, Milwaukee Tool‘s new downtown office, a new Kohl’s department store, Fiserv’s headquarters and The Avenue redevelopment.

A 55,000-square-foot site remains available for development immediately south of the planned plaza. “We think it’s a good time to remarket the RACM development site,” said Casanova. “It’s big enough to fit almost any project that’s been built Downtown in recent memory.” That includes, he said, BMO Tower, Ascent and The Trade hotel.

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

DCD is proposing to fund the improvements with $15.75 million from the overperforming Park East tax incremental financing (TIF) district. It also previously allocated $750,000 from the TIF district used to support Fiserv’s move to downtown. Casanova said those funds would cover the public art cost. Milwaukee County is also poised to spend additional funds on improving bus rapid transit stations along its nine-mile route.

A DCD official, in a statement earlier this month, 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.

The plaza would be named for civil rights pioneer Vel Phillips. She 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.

“It’s an important story for us to tell, especially at this location,” said Casanova. “There are a lot of local people that might know much about her and a lot of visitors [that pass the site].”

The northeast corner of the site would include a public art piece honoring Phillips and additional information on her. “2024 is going to be the year of Vel Phillips hopefully,” said Casanova, referencing a statue going up on the Capital Square in Madison in addition to Milwaukee’s efforts.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to honor her in the middle of Downtown,” said Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs.

An additional $4.35 million would be used for street infrastructure improvements at the north end of Downtown and $500,000 would be put aside to fund property improvements to attract or retain commercial tenants in the area through existing city programs. “This allows our limited Commercial Corridor funds we have in the budget to be spent elsewhere in the city,” said Casanova.

Coggs endorsed the infrastructure improvements, most of which would fall in her district. She said it would address lighting concerns her constituents have had. Casanova said it would also pay for redesigning the intersection of N. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. and W. Walnut St. in a more pedestrian-friendly style.

The proposal is subject to Common Council approval.

Area Alderman Robert Bauman, in a March 10 interview with Urban Milwaukee, expressed concern that the streetcar wasn’t in the revised plan.

The proposal revealed Thursday explicitly calls for a streetcar pathway, but no track or station construction. “It will be very easy and minimally disruptive to add a streetcar in the future,” said Casanova. But the new site plan deemphasizes a potential turnaround route by placing trees in its way, blocking a short extension to Wisconsin Avenue that Bauman said was a “no brainer.” The new plan, based on the guideway depicted, only highlights the larger plan to extend further north.

A partnership of The Kubala Washatko Architects, HNTB and landscape architecture firm Saiki Design is designing the plaza.

2023 Renderings

2019 Renderings

2019 Plaza Site Photos

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4 thoughts on “Eyes on Milwaukee: New Design For Vel R. Phillips Plaza Revealed”

  1. Polaris says:

    From the overall design, to the Vel Phillips memorial/art space, to the functional open spaces, to the retail space, to the raised street, to the contingent space for The Hop…what’s not to like?! And, IMHO, this could even (finally) attract development on the rest of the site. Fingers crossed.

    My hopes: That the art incorporated to honor Vel Phillips is both meaningful to her life and legacy and also a *beacon* for the plaza (maybe *two* installations?), that the trees planted end up being taller and broader than they appear here, and…I guess that’s it.

    NOTE: What’s with the apparently cisgendered couple in image 3 taking a selfie outside the restrooms? Are they affirming their respective genders or acknowledging gender fluidity? (Come to think of it, a gender neutral/family/“single hole” restroom would be a good addition…)

  2. Claude Krawczyk says:

    I think this is fabulous! I only hope that there is also some plan/funding in place for on-going maintenance, repairs and replacements that will be needed to keep the plaza in good shape for the long-term. We have to become as good at maintaining existing things as we are at building new things!

  3. Polaris says:

    @Claude Krawczyk…I couldn’t agree more! 🙂

  4. Polaris says:

    Ack…and, just thinking: With developing Vel Phillips Plaza now funded and the main entry to the Wisconsin/Baird Center moving from Wisconsin Ave. to Kilbourn, now might be a good time for the WI Center to consider how to activate its southern boarder on WI Ave.

    Maybe some commercial in the funky octagon at the corner (visitor information and discount ticket center?), or a buildout to the classic sidewalk line to accommodate commercial elsewhere along the block? It would have to be creative but, golly, it would be great to have all four corners and both sides of WI Ave. happening…

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