Top

New Urbanism on Downer: Ready Or Not, Here It Comes…

by Adam J. Lovinus

The new-urbanism aesthetic envisioned two decades ago by former Mayor John O. Norquist – a city of densely populated, self-supporting neighborhoods, diversely zoned with lots of green space and walking-distance amenities – has come to life in Milwaukee. It shows in the new high-rise luxury condos on the Lower East Side and the refurbished warehouse lofts south of downtown. We really seem to be reversing the old trend of suburban flight by renewing the attraction of city living for affluent residents, and breathing new life into the city business community.

Milwaukee’s new-urbanism revival is not without a dark side. Neighborhoods have seen skyrocketing land assessments, busier streets and parking problems from the population influx. Meanwhile, Milwaukee County continues to make cuts to mass transit and parks. Longtime residents dealing with crowded streets and bigger tax bills are understandably resistant to further neighborhood development.

The Downer Ave. neighborhood, south of the UWM campus and north St. Mary’s Hospital, is not a typical in-transition neighborhood. The residents are a mix of affluent homeowners and university students. It’s a stable, safe and quiet neighborhood – aside from the occasional ruckus of a campus house party.

It looks like an ahead-of-its-time model for new-urbanism with a walking-distance grocery store, pharmacy, bank, restaurants, and nearby recreational green space.

When the neighborhood learned of plans to introduce a tall multiunit residential tower to their backyard, it was met with some opposition.

“It’s easy to get alarmed about change of that nature,” says neighborhood resident Robert Powers. “I could see it as analogous to a Georgetown in Washington D.C., or one of Chicago’s many vital neighborhoods, where historic survivors stand shoulder-toshoulder with numerous newer buildings. Such neighborhoods can be vital, exciting places to work and live.”

On the other hand, signs that read “No 11-Story Condo” appeared on the front lawns of several residents.

The 11-story condo and hotel is the brainchild of New Land Enterprises – the major East Side developer responsible for much of the new high-end development in Milwaukee and recently-purchased storefronts along Downer Ave. The project won preliminary approval by the Milwaukee Common Council on February 13.

The proposed structure will house 36 one-bedrooms, 37 twobedrooms and 11 penthouses, a community room and a fitness center. Prices start at under $200,000 and range to $500,000, with the 11 penthouses ranging from $500,000 to $800,000 according to New Land sources.

The Committee for Balanced Development, a community group of Downer Ave. residents, told city officials on January 23 that a building of this height and mass is incompatible with the character of the surrounding neighborhood, and would greatly increase, not reduce, sidewalk and street congestion.

“We are convinced that our views are shared by the vast majority of the area’s residents, by most of the merchants who own their own buildings, and by many who do not, but might find it difficult to express their views publicly,” states the report by Committee for Balanced Development leaders Pat Frautschi, Michael Fleet, and Edward Olsen.

“I worry it will overpower the neighborhood,” Powers says. “I’ve always been under the impression that many of the strip’s problems come from the whimsical demands of certain landlords, rather than a lack of willing tenants.”

Mark Nord, owner of Downer Wine and Spirits, disagrees. He says his “business is thriving,” and when asked if he supports the proposed condo, he says, “I’m all for it.” Nord has no complaints about his past landlord at Katz, or his present one at New Land Enterprises.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s architecture critic Whitney Gould says, “…an occasional tall building in a low- to midrise neighborhood can actually enhance a sense of place, not hurt it.” She states that the 11-story condo’s design concept “shows a lively interplay of glass, stone, and reddish wood veneer; projecting bays at irregular intervals set up a jazzy counterpoint to the flatter façades nearby.”

A New Land spokesperson said the company hopes to start construction early next year, and reach completion by spring 2009.

Riverwest Currents online edition – March, 2007