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Yellow Flags

Harley Proposal Ignores the Land, the Plan, and the Urban Nature of the Site

A three and a half hour meeting of the Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development committee in late May ended with a four to one vote in favor of the Harley Davidson Development EXACTLY as proposed. Only Chairman Mike D’Amato, in an eloquent letter citing lack of density of development and excessive parking, dissented. The proposal went forward for approval to the entire Common Council the following week. In taking up the issue Tuesday, May 25, the council voted to pass the plan to move the Traser Yards and sell the land to Harley. Common Council President Willie Hines, the Greater Metropolitan Council, the Menomonee Valley Partners, and representatives from several other city organizations at the meeting stated genuine enthusiasm for Harley’s desire to contribute to growth in the valley and voiced support of the plan. Harley Davidson has proposed to build a tourist destination including a museum on a site in the Menomonee Valley that is currently occupied by the city’s Traser Yards. But as the Harley proposal drives (roars) through the green light from City Hall, few seem to be paying attention to the yellow flags being waved by the sidelined citizens of the city. With public and mayoral approval and support of a Harley Davidson museum as a catalytic development in the valley, why wave flags? The reason for the flags can be summed up in three words: the land, the plan, and the urban. Yellow flag #1 is that the eastern peninsula of the Menomonee Valley is not just another property to be developed. It is the culminus of Canal Street looking toward the Lake. It is round the river edge of the proposed Hank Aaron Trail that Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers want reclaimed. It is visible from the expressway and the Hoan Bridge and is an epicenter of views out of the valley. Never mind its lackluster appearance at present, the ground is important to efforts to reclaim the valley, to re-stitch neighborhoods north and south, and to bring new life with new jobs to Milwaukee citizens. The land is unique, singular, and asks to be developed as a destination. It is a focal point, visually as well as symbolically. It is not a pass-through. It is a panoramic place to be. This peninsula, if not developed as true urban fabric, but developed singularly by Harley, still needs to be rethought as a true focal point at the end of Canal Street, as a Gateway from north and south, and as a public place to gather. Yellow flag #2 is the plan… does Milwaukee have a plan? And if it does, is it important to follow the plan? Planning work to date includes an Urban Land Plan (1998) and Smart Growth Guidelines (1999-2000) for this site in the valley. If these plans and guidelines exist, what should be the protocol if they are ignored? These plans both show far greater density of roads and buildings than Harley’s proposal. If there aren’t as many roads or buildings, why pretend to be following the plan? Harley speaks of their proposed creation of a city grid east of 6th street as response to the Urban Land Plan for the area, placing buildings on the street front. But the original plan’s grid was meant for dense, mixed-use development and “city streets,” not a few large buildings owned by one company. City streets are the focus of an urban gridded plan; this peninsula at the eastern end of the Menomonee Valley is wide open, visible from many venues in the city. Any buildings that are built and set into green or asphalted landscapes will be seen, not just from the street front, but from the surrounding bridges, waterways, and downtown sites. This site and potential construction is far more public than just a city street. The 6th and Canal Street intersection that the city has provided is the street crossing that Harley should build on, anchoring the new museum and other buildings into the existing city fabric. Spending $11 million to create a street crossing to the east, as Harley has proposed, is a redundant duplication of efforts and misplaced development dollars better spent elsewhere. Yellow Flag #3 is the urban. Privatization and suburbanization of this property is NOT urban. Urban is public, meaning that it is for the citizens of the city. Urban means open to growth and change and development, not controlled for staged singular development. If the 20 acres east of 6th Street and acreage west of the 6th Street viaduct is for Harley to use as it sees fit, the city needs to call a spade a spade and admit it needs Harley as a catalyst in the valley to spark development — that in fact Harley’s proposal does not address prior plans, but that the city has decided to overlook this to support creating a world class museum and public spectacle event at this site. The city should acknowledge what it is willing to do to support Harley in the valley — but make it clear to the people of Milwaukee what they as citizens will be able to enjoy, benefit from, and appreciate. Last summer’s gathering of Harley riders from all over the country flooded Milwaukee’s streets north south east and west. How many bikers can inhabit a street crossing? It’s hard to imagine even a trickle of the same spectacle converging on a singular street crossing in the eastern peninsula of the Menomonee Valley. The Harley proposal, with its ‘dead end streets,’ would not be the culminus and drive-around-and-through experience the Harley contingency or those who enjoy watching the Harley riders delight in. Harley and the city need to understand that if this proposal goes forward as conceptualized, it will be a ‘disneyfication’ of urban planning, and not real city fabric with housing, jobs, commercial, and recreational usage. That said, if the momentum and support for Harley’s presence in the valley as a vital catalyst to jump start the area continues unimpeded, both the city and Harley need to reconceive their plan. Looking nationally and internationally at the addition of world-class museums to blighted city areas, the presence of a museum in the valley could be the spark to upgrade future possibilities. For Harley’s proposed museum to initiate the so-called “Bilboa effect,” its design and planning must address 21st century ideals of museums, which in addition to retaining archived collections of artifacts, must also come outside of traditional museum exhibition and create a fluid landscape of educational public spectacles and events. Museums have been called the cathedrals of the 21st century as they introduce “edutainment” into popular culture. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the Experience Music Project in Seattle, the Architecture Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, the Aerospace Museum in LA, the Guggenheim in Bilboa, Spain, the Parc Citroen Environmental Open Air Museum in Paris — all celebrate their singular riverside sitings in creative ways, supporting their functions and giving back to the citizens. Other cities have plans in place that guide development with forward looking principles. Where is Milwaukee’s plan? With an old plan that is only partially adhered to (and is not based on forward visions for the city like the efforts of Metropolis 2020 in Chicago, or Indianapolis 2020, or Nashville’s Design Institute), City Hall and Harley must structure a design dialogue to step up to the challenge of creating a world class museum on a landscaped, environmentally educational peninsula in the Menomonee Valley in the center of Milwaukee.