Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

City Seeks Restaurant or Cafe For Downtown Park

Its plan for Vel R. Phillips Plaza is to create new gathering spot for Westown.

By - Apr 25th, 2023 02:14 pm
Vel R. Phillips Plaza. Rendering by TKWA.

Vel R. Phillips Plaza. Rendering by TKWA.

The City of Milwaukee is looking for a “uniquely Milwaukee” food and beverage vendor to operate at Vel R. Phillips Plaza, a new downtown park planned along W. Wisconsin Ave.

A request for proposals (RFP) was issued this week to select a vendor. City officials hope the operator makes the plaza a marquee downtown destination. Construction is expected to begin this fall, with the plaza planned to open in time for the July 2024 Republican National Convention.

The vendor would operate from a new, glassy building near W. Wisconsin Ave. and N. 5th St. The plaza, honoring civil rights pioneer Vel Phillips, would run east along W. Wisconsin Ave. to N. Vel R. Phillips Ave.

“The location couldn’t be more promising,” said Mayor Cavalier Johnson at a press conference Monday. The mayor ticked off a long list of nearby projects, including the $456 million expansion of the convention center, Fiserv’s headquarters relocation to HUB640, the planned Kohl’s department store, The Avenue, 3rd Street Market Hall, Bradley Symphony Center and new Milwaukee Tool downtown office. “There is much more happening in the Westown neighborhood as well.”

Located just east of the Hilton Milwaukee City Center hotel, Downtown’s largest, the building is located within a few blocks of more than 1,000 hotel rooms, thousands of downtown workers and a quickly-growing cluster of 2,500 apartments, the RFP notes.

It calls for the “ideal” vendor to operate seven days a week with hours of operation most days from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. The RFP also asks for a vendor that highlights local brands with breakfast offerings, beer, wine and liquor in the afternoon and evening, kid-friendly options, desserts such as ice cream in the warmer months and food options throughout the day.

The building plans, released as part of the proposal, call for a “signature water feature” or fountain inside the 2,900-square-foot building or in the outdoor seating area. The 30,000-square-foot plaza would also include a manicured garden, flexible space for farmers markets and other events, informational kiosk, public art installations and a station on Milwaukee County’s Connect bus-rapid transit line. Johnson said he hopes the plaza will honor “the legacy, the activism and the public service” of Phillips.

The $16 million plaza is being built on a city-owned parking lot. The remaining 55,000 square feet of space, large enough to accommodate most of the new buildings constructed in Downtown in recent years, would be marketed for redevelopment. Space would be reserved through the plaza for a future streetcar line north to Fiserv Forum and Bronzeville.

Responses to the RFP are due July 31. City officials intend to select a vendor this fall.

The RFP gives examples of what type of food and beverage operation the city seeks, citing examples of the concessionaires operating in Campus Martius Park in Detroit, Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, Connors Park in Chicago and Public Square in Cleveland. Each of those parks is a well-trafficked space that includes movable outdoor seating, a blurred delineation between public and private space that invites people to gather and linger and regular programming to attract visitors.

The city would provide up to $750,000 for the food and beverage vendor’s buildout depending on the lease structure and proposed tenant improvements. The building, otherwise, would be delivered to the tenant in “warm gray box condition” with safety lighting, a gravel floor and no wall finishes. Public, exterior-facing restrooms would be built by the city. The future tenant is responsible for any interior restrooms and cleaning of all restrooms.

In addition to a space to eat, drink and gather, the plaza would honor the late Vel Phillips.

“The halls of power were never the same after Vel Phillips arrived,” said Johnson. 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.

She would have turned 100 in 2024. “We look forward to ‘Vel Phillips year’ next year,” said her son Michael D. Phillips. A statue is also expected to be unveiled outside the Wisconsin State Capitol and the Wisconsin Historical Society is expected to publish a biography.

“It just makes sense to honor her every way we can,” said Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs. The alderwoman, who considered Phillips a mentor, led the charge to rename N. 4th St. after Phillips.

Johnson, Coggs and Michael Phillips were joined by a host of civic leaders to sign the tax incremental financing plan for the district. In the crowd were VISIT Milwaukee CEO Peggy Williams-Smith, Wisconsin Center District CEO Marty Brooks, Westown Association Executive Director Stacie Callies, Milwaukee Downtown CEO Beth Weirick, Public Works Commissioner Jerrel Kruschke, City Development Commissioner Lafayette Crump, Milwaukee County Department of Transporation director Donna Brown-Martin and council members Jonathan Brostoff, Russell W. Stamper, II and Mark Chambers, Jr.

The plaza was first proposed in 2019 as part of a much larger proposal to extend the streetcar, but the council did not advance that proposal. The current proposal does not include funding for the streetcar extension to the plaza or beyond.

The plaza was originally to cost $5 million as part of the larger plan. Department of City Development officials have attributed the cost increase to previously unknown environmental contamination, changes to the plan, rising construction costs and inflation.

The plaza is being funded with $15.75 million from the overperforming Park East tax incremental financing (TIF) district. Last year, the city also previously allocated $750,000 from the TIF district to support Fiserv’s move into Downtown to pay for public art costs related to the plaza. For more on the financing plan, see our earlier coverage.

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

A copy of the RFP is available on Urban Milwaukee.

2023 Renderings

2019 Renderings

2019 Plaza Site Photos

Example Parks

Press Conference

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