Making Fourth Street a Bucks plaza is a risky plan

An Open Letter

The City of Milwaukee’s funding package for a Milwaukee Bucks arena complex was passed and signed on September 22. Riverwest’s Ald. Nik Kovac was one of three dissenting votes, along with Mark Borkowski and Tony Zielinski. However, one proposal remains undecided and subject to public scrutiny and eventual hearings. It involves possibly ceding North Fourth Street between Highland and Juneau Avenues for the Milwaukee Bucks’ exclusive commercial use as a three-acre plaza.

Permanently closing off any downtown street involves ramifications for current and future transportation and land-use planning. More study and civic engagement should happen before the Common Council votes on this attempted privatization of a public space.

City officials can explore options to accommodate pedestrian and vehicular traffic near a new arena without “vacating” one block of Fourth Street. That includes possibly permitting closures during arena and some special events. This is commonly done in Indianapolis, Seattle and Boston. A temporary pedestrian plaza can thus be created while otherwise retaining an open roadway for vehicles. New Orleans does this nightly with Bourbon Street. Milwaukee routinely does it for street festivals, Wisconsin Avenue night markets and Cathedral Square events.

We recommend commissioning an independent traffic study to analyze potential impacts and routing options. For example, with Fourth Street closed to vehicles at Highland, all northbound traffic would reach a dead-end there. That would require a right turn and then a left or right turn on Old World Third Street, a narrower street partially paved in brick. On weekend and event nights, there already is congestion on Third Street. Funneling more cars there could create bottlenecks in this historic district. Implications of either temporarily or permanently increasing traffic there should be thoroughly examined.

Southbound, Fourth Street traffic would dead-end at Juneau. Vehicles could proceed either east or west and then access either Third or Sixth streets, which could further overwhelm Third Street.

How might a street closure impact Fourth Street north of Juneau into Bronzeville, since traffic would be diverted from there? How might it affect that area’s development prospects? The Ace Hardware complex at Fourth Street and McKinley Avenue is being repurposed as offices and a tavern. Adjacent Park East land will eventually be developed. Retail enterprises there and northward will benefit from Fourth Street remaining a thoroughfare that connects to the Milwaukee Intermodal Station.

When pedestrian malls are created, cities reconfigure streets without permanently ceding ownership. Successful pedestrian malls in the U.S. are the exception, not the rule. Of all pedestrian malls created since 1959, a whopping 89 percent have failed. They consistently have depressed downtown retail, not enhanced it, including along Chicago’s former State Street mall. Most pedestrian malls have been restored as streets with vehicular traffic. It would be costly and complicated to reclaim Fourth Street once it has been foolishly given away and converted into the Bucks’ plaza.

Manhattan urban designer and planner Jessica Schmidt analyzed the issue: http://nacto.org/docs/usdg/revisiting_pedestrian_malls_scmidt.pdf
“For a pedestrian mall to be successful, a number of factors need to be in place…[and it] demands serious long-term research and planning.” None of that happened in Milwaukee before a top-down plan was proposed by Bucks and city officials to permanently vacate Fourth Street.

Schmidt continues: “Newly-opened pedestrian malls at Times Square and Herald Square in New York City have been successful because of their location in highly-trafficked areas and the lack of nearby outdoor seating.” A few others have succeeded in university settings or in areas with intense tourism or high-density housing. No pedestrian mall in the U.S. has become a thriving “destination” when it was built in a low-pedestrian area like Fourth Street, according to exhaustive research by Cole E. Judge for the Fresno Future Conference in 2013. http://downtowndevelopment.com/pdf/americanpedmallexperiment.pdf

We look forward to more development in Westown. We want the entire convention and arena district to become more welcoming for everyone — pedestrians, bicyclists, and those using other modes of transportation. That new inclusive, flexible approach is called “Complete Streets,” in which no single mode dominates. To this end, we believe that major transportation decisions should be made within a comprehensive planning framework. That must include community engagement, full transparency and consistency with city policies and procedures. For example, a public notice is required before a Milwaukee street or alley can be vacated. Waiving that mandate up-ends fairness.

It’s unwise for arena deal-makers to try to short-cut the development process. However, there’s plenty of time to make well-reasoned decisions regarding Fourth Street. Arena construction will not begin before Spring 2016. Scant details have been presented for the Bucks proposed entertainment mall, which they want to build across from the arena on Fourth Street. The city proposes handing over a block-long garage to be razed for that purpose. Architects can creatively design within wise parameters that are established.

The City of Milwaukee should not vacate downtown streets when other options are available. The city should use sound planning to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes for the Milwaukee Bucks and for all residents and visitors who travel to and through downtown.

The above letter is signed by the following:

Barbara Aho, landscape designer

Gerry Broderick, Milwaukee County Supervisor

Janice Christensen

Chris Christie

Michael H. Carriere, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Milwaukee School of Engineering; author of writings on American history, urban studies and public policy

Mary Glass, Chair/Chief Visionary Officer, Milwaukee Professionals Association LLC

James Godsil, cofounder, Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, Milwaukee Renaissance Wiki Magazine

Geoffrey Grohowski, board member, Sherman Park Community Association and Milwaukee Preservation Alliance

Lane Hall, co-founder, Overpass Light Brigade; educator and activist

Jamie M. Harris, Ph.D., Associate Director, Urban Studies Programs, UW-Milwaukee

Lorraine Jacobs

Linda Keane, AIA, Professor, Architecture and Environmental Design, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Mark Keane, Professor, Architecture, UW-Milwaukee

Julilly Kohler, developer

Mary Laan, Vice President, Public Enterprise Committee; Chair, Move to Amend, SE Wisconsin

Dawn McCarthy

Larraine McNamara-McGraw, attorney; former alderperson, Third District

Aims McGuinness, Associate Professor, History, UW-Milwaukee

Patricia Obletz, artist, activist, author and editor  

Joseph A. Rodriquez, Professor, History and Urban Studies, UW-Milwaukee; author, Bootstrap New Urbanism: Design, Race and Redevelopment in Milwaukee

Peggy Schulz, public-space and transit advocate

Virginia Small, researcher and writer

Harvey Taylor, social justice advocate

Walter Wilson, FAIA, retired Principal Architect, Milwaukee County

Here’s a link to the first letter

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Last edited by Tyler Schuster.   Page last modified on September 27, 2015

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