RiverWalk, $200,000 condos awaken Milwaukee

Milwaukee students and businesspeople gather at a public seating area near the downtown Borders bookstore around lunch time. Planners say people are naturally drawn to water features.
Milwaukee students and businesspeople gather at a public seating area near the downtown Borders bookstore around lunch time. Planners say people are naturally drawn to water features. The Wichita Eagle

MILWAUKEE — Just past the southern end of this city's built-up downtown RiverWalk, Jesse Sorgatz and Nicole LaBrie sit in the setting sun with their legs dangling above the Milwaukee River and beers sweating on the concrete ledge.

The wood-plank RiverWalk a few feet away is one of downtown's hot spots — a natural draw for bar hoppers, businesspeople and tourists.

But Sorgatz, a bike messenger, and LaBrie, a fashion design student, prefer this gritty pocket where a vacant condo building carries graffiti tags and pontoons of tourists drift by.

"We like this spot better than that spot," LaBrie said, joking with a nod toward RiverWalk, which helped revamp downtown after years of decline.

Their friends join them, the sun falls behind a sprawling, 12-story building of $200,000-plus condos, and they finally hit the RiverWalk on their way to a crowded bar in the historic Milwaukee Grain Exchange building.

The juxtaposition of high-end development and the gritty urbanism these 20-somethings embrace is part of what makes this mostly built-out downtown on the shores of Lake Michigan thrive.

It has hung onto its industrial, beer-soaked history while building a future on a plethora of government-backed incentives, a diverse student population and leaders who emphasize the role of architectural design and urban planning.

When big breweries like Pabst left town, the city helped fill the historic buildings with condos.

It still has some dead spots. But its growing downtown population of nearly 15,000, its connections between business and entertainment districts and its popular storefronts are a much larger version of what Wichita leaders say they want to grow out of the 20-year revitalization plan currently in the works.

Connected by division

Today, the Milwaukee River is one of the city's key features. It's where people who can afford it live in high-end condos and where restaurants and microbrewers cash in on sunny afternoons.

But the river used to be a stinky stream of sewage and byproduct from breweries, leather tanneries and other manufacturers.

"Milwaukee used to be like you could tell where you were by the smell," said Loren Stevens, 28, who teaches canoeing and kayaking to disadvantaged inner-city kids.

Most of the buildings faced the street, not the water.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 helped change the smell, but it took years of failed attempts to finally get a development plan, said Rocky Marcoux, head of Milwaukee's Department of City Development.

"Each time they were beaten back by special interests or by groups of owners who felt it was not in their best interest to do this or felt threatened by the city or in some cases thought it was a public taking," he said.

But in 1988, business owners and politicians agreed on a plan: The city would pay for half the cost of installing dockwall and 70 percent of the RiverWalk construction if property owners would kick in the rest.

Meanwhile, property owners signed on to create a business improvement district, a quasi-private group that assesses property owners to pay for improvements and maintenance.

"It was going to take a bold move," said Gary Grunau, a prominent developer and a leader on the RiverWalk movement. "Doing it one piece at a time wasn't going to work."

Now it's one of the city's most recognizable features.

A group of women from Dallas who were in Milwaukee for a training seminar said they were pleasantly surprised with the RiverWalk and downtown in general.

"Who would have thought you could have a dock at your place?" Tara Rich said, pointing over to boats lined up at the back patio of some nearby condos. "That's pretty cool."

Milwaukee's RiverWalk —and much of its downtown revival — was driven, in part, by its mayor, John Norquist, who now heads the Chicago-based Congress for New Urbanism, a nonprofit that promotes walker-friendly, sustainable mixed-use development.

Many say strong leadership is the key to downtown redevelopment, and Norquist's attention to architecture and street design is widely viewed as pivotal to Milwaukee's revival.

In 2003, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel architecture critic wrote that "his imprint here will be felt in the form of beautiful bridges, a new generation of walkable neighborhoods and street-friendly facades, and the unbuilding of an ugly freeway spur. That's not fluff; it's the stuff of livable cities."

Connections, groceries

As Beth Nicols, executive director of Milwaukee's primary downtown business improvement district, drives through downtown, she points to several keys to Milwaukee's success.

* Visual connections between neighborhoods — such as streets with significant retail, park space or sidewalk amenities.

* Condos, apartments and other housing that caters to high-end living and affordable lifestyles for college students and middle- and low-income people.

* Tens of thousands of college students in the downtown area and on its fringes.

* Involving those students in leadership and forming ideas for the community.

"We want them to be part of the community," she said, driving through private Marquette University. "And stay here."

* Ambassadors on the street who help people and clean things up.

* A retail recruiter equipped with incentives, including a recently formed $100,000 public-private fund to subsidize retailers on one of its most important streets, Wisconsin Ave.

And here's a big one:

* Groceries and markets for the estimated 14,898 downtown residents who have an annual per capita income of about $34,000.

When the Food Trust, a nonprofit that advocates healthy and affordable food, created a report on supermarket stimulation for New York, it highlighted Milwaukee's use of data.

The city used independent analysis of income tax and other information to show spending patterns and buying power and mapped it.

The city hosts the reports on its websites for potential grocers or retailers to see.

One grocery store opened in conjunction with an apartment tower. It operated as a rather average Pick 'n Save grocery store for years, but its owners later turned it into a more attractive Metro Market.

It has fresh produce, niche deli and bakery goods, a coffee bar, fireplace, flat-screen TV and wireless Internet access.

In 2005, on the other side of downtown and in the popular Historic Third Ward, the Milwaukee Public Market opened.

It was paid for with $10.5 million in donations raised by the Historic Third Ward Business Improvement District and a $2.5 million federal grant.

It has had significant turnover through the years, but is now on solid footing, several vendors and other officials said.

The market is like a food court mixed with niche deli items.

Phil Bilodeau searched the country to find the right demographics for a wine shop and bar. He visited a friend in Milwaukee and quickly decided to move into the public market in July 2008.

"It has the blue collar stereotype of beer and brats," he said, sitting at the open air market bar. "There's plenty of that around. But there's a pretty good size base of people who appreciate great wine."


Tax-incremental financing has drawn mixed results and sharp criticism in Wichita.

But it's become a largely successful and primary development tool in Milwaukee.

Some of its districts have borrowed money to make annual debt payments and face longer-than-expected payback periods because of the recession. But it has spurred development across the city.

Milwaukee has created more than 70 TIF districts, including 49 that are still active.

The city puts annual reports on the districts online so people can see what the property tax paid for and how it's working out.

The increment of growth inside those districts totals $1.3 billion and represents about 4 percent of the city's property value, according to a report released in May.

The average payback period is 18 years.

But its former mayor thinks TIF districts are overrated, except in situations where it cleans up pollution.

If developers are coming into town and saying the city isn't good enough to invest in without incentives, Norquist said, you have to ask questions.

"Do you really want that guy?" he said. "If he has that negative of an attitude about Wichita that you have to bribe him to be there, it may not be the best bet."

He said there are many success stories for TIF districts, but that it's often about who has the most sophisticated lobbyist in City Hall.

Instead, he advocates that governments create smart zoning rules and eliminate much of the costly, time-consuming red tape developers have to navigate.

City planner Robert Greenstreet, who is also dean of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning, said a city's vision has to be built on its residents' ideas.

"You can't impose it from above," he said over coffee at a Starbucks that is attached to a public park with an ice-skating rink. "It's a lot easier to stop things than do them."

Haves and have-nots

The benefits of downtown development aren't always as well-received in some of Milwaukee's rundown neighborhoods on its north side.

On Northern Avenue, the city shifts from mansions and high-end retail near the shores of Lake Michigan to boarded storefronts and abandoned homes in the course of just a couple of miles.

Jackie Hawkins, a 21-year-old who works at a Wendy's and is studying to become a certified nurse assistant, lives in the poorer part of the city and said she rarely goes downtown because she doesn't have time and it is too expensive.

She sees a disproportionate amount of attention paid to downtown while her neighborhood near 38th Street and North Avenue declines.

"If they're going to fix up downtown, they should fix it up all over," she said as she waited for a bus.

Nearby, Shishona Williams, a 22-year-old who does cleaning in a downtown courthouse, said she sees disparity, but also sees improvements and expansions of programs that help low-income homeowners.

"They kind of have started to help the community more," she said.

That includes the Bronzeville cultural and entertainment district just a few blocks away where the city has spent more than $1.3 million buying blighted properties in hopes of attracting new development.

Angela Barnett, a 30-year-old who lived with her mom on the north side of the city where poverty runs high, moved downtown about five weeks ago. She's out of work and is staying at a shelter in the downtown area.

As she walked to the green-roofed Central Library, she said that the city takes care of its homeless population and that being downtown has improved her outlook.

"It's peaceful," she said. "There are a lot of nice, friendly people."

She said that between the library, RiverWalk and the largely vacant downtown mall, she has safe and comfortable places to be where she doesn't have to spend a lot of money.

"I'm happy when I'm down here," she said. "I just love it."

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