Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Committee Recommends $16 Million For New Downtown Park

To be called Vel R. Phillips Plaza. Plus $6 million for other projects.

By - Apr 12th, 2023 05:49 pm
Vel R. Phillips Plaza. Rendering by TKWA.

Vel R. Phillips Plaza. Rendering by TKWA.

Three substantial projects took key steps forward Tuesday with the Common Council’s Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee endorsing the use of $21.6 million in tax incremental financing (TIF) to advance their development.

The committee endorsed a $15.75 million plan to develop Vel R. Phillips Plaza, a new public park, along W. Wisconsin Ave. between N. Vel R. Phillips Ave. and N. 5th St. It also backed $1 million to build a street to 10 acres of largely hidden land in the Menomonee Valley, $4.35 million for street improvements just north of Downtown and $500,000 to fund city programs used to attract and retain commercial tenants. All of the funding will come from excess revenue being generated nearby tax incremental financing districts.

The new plaza would be developed atop a city-owned surface parking lot at 401 W. Wisconsin Ave. 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.

“We want people to congregate here. We have too many public plazas in Milwaukee that are too empty,” said Department of City Development economic development specialist Dan Casanova to the committee. He said the proposed building and operator would be key, with the city expected to issue a request for proposals later for an operator later this month. The building would also include public restrooms, which could be used to support nearby events like the Milwaukee Night Market.

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. The northeast corner of the site would include a public art piece honoring Phillips and providing information on her.

Is Phillips Plaza A Streetcar Trojan Horse?

Alderman Scott Spiker proffered a theory that the plaza was only being built to accommodate a future streetcar extension for which the city has struggled to secure federal support. He noted that costs have risen from $5 million when it was introduced in 2019 to nearly $16 million.

“This is kind of feeling like a streetcar vote here,” said Spiker.

Spiker suggested that the entire site be developed, citing it as some of the most valuable land in the city. Casanova said the site was previously marketed and didn’t draw offers. The DCD representative said the plaza was intended to improve the desirability of the remaining 55,000-square-foot site and that the remaining site will still be larger than those recently redeveloped into new towers Downtown. Casanova attributed the rising costs to various factors including inflation, design improvements, soil contamination and the proposal to raise a portion of W. Wisconsin Ave. to better connect the plaza with the convention center for pedestrians.

“I am just not sure why we are making this move now when the future of the streetcar is so unsure,” said Spiker, citing the repeated failure to secure federal grants.

But Bauman had a clear reason – he said it would create a monument to a card-carrying Democrat directly across from the convention center that will host the Republican National Convention.

“It’s definitely a consideration to be done before the RNC if possible,” said Casanova. The use of tax incremental financing (TIF) from the Park East TIF district was also an issue, it needed to be encumbered within the next year or the aging district would have to close early. Casanova said the city would still be moving ahead with the project even if the streetcar weren’t happening.

“I am an enthusiastic supporter of this concept,” said Bauman. He said he is satisfied that space is being reserved for the streetcar, something he had initially told Urban Milwaukee in March that he was concerned about when the revised plans were unveiled.

“I am too am in enthusiastic support of this,” said Coggs, who considered Phillips a mentor and led past city efforts to honor her. She called the current parking lot an eyesore.

Bauman, speaking to Spiker, suggested voting against a plaza named for a civil rights leader wouldn’t look good. “I wouldn’t want that to be my legacy, but fair enough,” he said. Spiker voted for the measure.

The full council will consider the proposal on April 18.

2023 Plaza Renderings

2019 Plaza Site Photos

Street Improvements

An additional $4.35 million in TIF funds would be reserved for traffic calming, new pavement street lighting and other public infrastructure improvements near the intersection of N. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. and W. Walnut St. Coggs previously told the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee (RACM) board that area residents had concerns about lighting. Casanova said planned bicycle and pedestrian safety improvements would help make the street a safer corridor in line with the complete reconstruction of W. Walnut St. underway to the west.

$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 when RACM reviewed the plan in March.

Those two allocations would also be funded by the Park East TIF District. State law allows TIF districts to fund public infrastructure improvements within a half mile of their boundaries. The district was originally used to fund the demolition of the Park East Freeway and has been subsequently used to support developments in the corridor. Under state statute, the district must close in 2029 and no new expenses can be added after 2024.

Menomonee Valley Development

The third major project is a $1 million allocation to support the development of 10 acres of land in the Menomonee Valley. The funding, as previously covered by Urban Milwaukee, will be paired with a $3.2 million federal grant.

Known as the Kneeland Properties, the site is located between N. 6th St. and N. 13th. and the Canadian Pacific main line and the Menomonee River. The Interstate 94 High-Rise Bridge bisects the property from above as it feeds into the Marquette Interchange.

The site was first identified as a development target in the 1998 valley redevelopment plan and a 2015 update labeled it a catalytic site. A 2018 design charette explored the potential development of three buildings and parking under the freeway. There is just one major issue – it has no street access nor utility infrastructure.

The grant will pay for the infrastructure construction and the city will then market a series of parcels for sale. Menomonee Valley Partners hopes to attract light industrial or food-and-beverage-related tenants that would have public-facing operations, such as a brewery, and could take advantage of a planned riverwalk.

The TIF funding for this proposal will come from district used to support the development of the Harley-Davidson Museum, 400 W. Canal St.

More information on the proposal is available in our March coverage.

Photos and Site Map

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One thought on “Eyes on Milwaukee: Committee Recommends $16 Million For New Downtown Park”

  1. Goya says:

    The Vel R. Phillips Plaza seems like a really great idea. That area of downtown really needs a nice welcoming space like that. They should develop that whole space into the park/plaza instead of leaving some parking. We don’t need wasted space for parking there.

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