Putting “Green” Into the Park East Redevelopment Plan

by Vince Bushell

The road lattice has been rebuilt. The land has been cleared and waits for developers. Undoubtedly the Park East Redevelopment will have a large impact on Downtown and all near neighborhoods from Lake Michigan to the freeway. Certainly the removal of the Park East Freeway will be a significant part of former Mayor John Norquist’s legacy. But the direction the redevelopment takes will be determined partly by a new administration. As we pause for regime change, note that the new mayor and a new city planner will be in office before anything is actually built on the Park East land. Last month the Riverwest Currents asked candidates about a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) that has been proposed for the Park East corridor by a coalition of groups under the banner of Good Jobs Livable Neighborhoods. (All active candidates, except, notably, Common Council President Marvin Pratt, who is now acting Mayor, responded with their vision for the area.) The question being debated is how detailed the redevelopment plan should be in addressing community benefits. I am defining “community” to include existing neighbors and neighborhoods and their needs and desires. Since most of the former freeway land is owned by the County and a smaller portion by the City of Milwaukee, it is not too far-fetched that a CBA be part of the deal for development, at least for the public owned sections. Allowing “the Market” to solely determine its use is really not being proposed by anyone, as there will be design parameters to follow under the plan prepared by City Planner Peter Park. Norquist opposed including additional requirements relating to job creation and affordable housing as desired by the CBA proponents. One proposal that has been getting short shrift in discussions is the inclusion of Green or Open space into the plan. Neither Peter Park nor the demands arising out of the CBA place much emphasis on this goal. A few parcels have been identified as “green,” but that designation seems to be driven by the unsuitability of the parcels for anything else. While decision-makers wringing their hands over possible loss of development opportunities because of CBA restrictions, and CBA advocates push for good jobs and economically diverse housing choices in the corridor, open space has gotten lost in the shuffle. Two mayoral candidates touched on the green space issue in their answers to our question last month: Tom Barrett notes that green space needs to be accessible, and Martin Matson says “there needs to be green space and public access to the river.” Mayor Norquist has also indicated that more attention could be paid to the issue. But it did not even come up in the other candidates’ responses. What we are missing here is an opportunity to make a pedestrian-friendly, open space corridor that links the Milwaukee River and the Riverwalk through the Park East Corridor to the coming development at the former Pabst Brewery to the west. Stop and look at the site and you will see the possible connection. If you think of great cities and what makes them great, it is urban open space. Central Park in New York, Lake Park and the parks system in Milwaukee, the riverwalk in San Antonio, Unter den Linden in Berlin — all are examples of great urban open spaces. What is striking about the last one, Under den Linden (Under the Linden trees) is that it incorporates a broad shaded walkway with benches along an intensely developed street in Berlin. It encourages walking, has benches, and offers opportunities for street vendors. It promotes urban interaction for residents and visitors alike. McKinley Boulevard in the Park East corridor is designed to handle and distribute traffic from I-43 into downtown. McKinley is for the cars. Juneau Avenue could become the pedestrian-designed link through the corridor and to the other trails that follow the River both up and down stream and continuing east to the Lake. This is not just an idea that would please open space advocates. It is an idea that would add great economic value to all the properties along this broad, tree-lined walkway. It would add appeal that would make developers want to be there and would extend “the place to be” along the entire length of the corridor. Adding value is the key. It will make it easier to develop the parcels and thus easier to sell developers in agreeing to Community Benefit Agreements.