Graef-led team wins Lakefront Gateway Plaza design competition

Commercial Real Estate & Development

Lakefront Gateway Plaza

Milwaukee-based engineering firm Graef was recently selected to lead a team to design the Lakefront Gateway Plaza project on Milwaukee’s lakefront – a triumph for any designer, as the competition was fierce.

A rendering of the Graef team’s Lakefront Gateway Plaza design.
A rendering of the Graef team’s Lakefront Gateway Plaza design.

The Graef team first beat two dozen design teams from across the country who responded to a request to submit entries in the contest. Once the contest was narrowed, the local team was pitted against the best in the industry – contenders who have projects on their resumes including Chicago’s Navy Pier, London’s Olympic Park and Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co.’s new headquarters, currently under construction in downtown Milwaukee.

“It is interesting we’ve chosen a local firm, but it’s not because they’re local, it’s because they are the best,” said Milwaukee Common Council president Alderman Michael Murphy, who was not on the selection committee, but spoke during the selection announcement. “In many respects, we are too humble as a city.”

The Lakefront Gateway Plaza is planned for a 1.5-acre site between the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Summerfest grounds.

The plaza will be bounded by Michigan Street, Lincoln Memorial Drive, Art Museum Drive and the future extension of Clybourn Street.

The Lakefront Gateway Plaza is part of an effort to reshape and improve the lakefront area. That will include the planned reconfiguration of the Lake Interchange and the extension of Lincoln Memorial Drive south into the Historic Third Ward. Each design proposal submitted for the plaza featured a water component and would connect via pedestrian bridge to The Couture, a $122 million, 44-story, 302-unit apartment tower planned for land that now houses the Downtown Transit Center, 909 E. Michigan St.

While the winning team is led by Graef, it also includes Vancouver-based PFS Studio; Milwaukee-based Rinka Chung Architecture; Toronto-based Dan Euser Water Architecture; and Milwaukee-based NEWaukee.

Matt Rinka, principal of Rinka Chung Architecture, is also the architect designing The Couture.

The group submitted a design proposal called Urban Confluence that shows pedestrian bridges from O’Donnell Park over Michigan Street to The Couture and from The Couture over Lincoln Memorial Drive to the Lakefront Gateway Plaza.

The pedestrian bridges would have water along the sides that would flow all the way to the Lakefront Gateway Plaza to integrate with a variety of water elements. The plan would add numerous water features, including a large water feature area that could be used as an ice skating rink in the winter, and numerous trees.

The project also includes a lighted beacon that would change color based on the weather, pavilions and “water veils.” The plan also suggests that East Clybourn Street could become an important pedestrian connection between downtown and the lakefront.

When the team was chosen last month, the group and the city made it clear that these designs were preliminary and public input would be sought.

The early cost estimate for the project is $26 million. A combination of private donations and government grants are expected to be necessary to pay for the project. The city has already set aside $3 million in tax incremental financing for the project.

Pat Kressin, leader of Graef’s design team for the Plaza, said philanthropy will be an important part of the project. He believes his team has a good idea and will expound upon it, and the philanthropic community will be excited to support it.

Kressin said Graef has had its eye on this project for the past 18 months and has been meeting with city and Wisconsin Department of Transportation officials to learn the challenges the space might have so those issues could be addressed when creating a design for the park.

“We went after this project, brought in some out-of-town experts, and were able to prevail over some of the best landscape architects and planners in the world,” Kressin said. “There is still a lot more work to do. We created a broad brush program and now we flush it out with the detail elements.”

A timeline for the project has not been set and will likely depend on funding, but Kressin said it will ideally open at the same time as The Couture, since the two will be interconnected.

Rinka, who always humbly points out his role on the team is as a secondary architect, said while his work on The Couture and the Lakefront Gateway Plaza will integrate, he doesn’t believe that is why the team was chosen for the job.

“Our submission didn’t show much of (The Couture) project,” Rinka said. “I think our local insight into what the lakefront really needs in terms of better access and inclusion really helped us among jurors. There were certainly big names in design, but the team we have is as strong as any of the names we were in competition against. We won this on our merits.”

Joel Brennan, president and CEO of Discovery World, who was one of the jurors who chose the winning team, said it was the combination of local knowledge with Graef and Rinka, as well as the international talent.

“I’m someone who runs an institution that is on the lakefront. The biggest thing for me is how do you easily get people to navigate from where they are to Discovery World, to the lake, to Summerfest – how do we make this a true lakefront campus?” Brennan asked.

The process for choosing a design team for the Lakefront Gateway Plaza was much different than another major project that transformed this area of the lakefront. In 1994, Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava was urged by the Milwaukee Art Museum’s search committee to submit a proposal for the museum’s expansion project.

The art museum project was initially proposed as a small addition kicked off with a then-anonymous $10 million gift from Betty and Harry Quadracci. When Calatrava was chosen, excitement over the project grew and fundraising accelerated, which was needed, because so did the price tag.

When the Quadracci Pavilion opened in 2001, it had cost a reported $122 million, up from the original estimate of $38 million.

Greg Uhen, CEO and managing partner of design at Eppstein Uhen Architects, who was on the Lakefront Gateway Plaza jury, believes the public will embrace this project as it did the art museum, both intellectually and philanthropically.

“The money that had to be raised for the museum was substantially higher, and in some ways, this can have even more of an impact,” Uhen said. “I love the museum and many, many people visit it. But this space is an outdoor park and a public space. It has the ability to attract a lot more visitors.”

Uhen said he chose the Graef team because he liked the fact that this group has worked in cold weather climates.

The other finalists were teams led by James Corner Field Operations, New York; AECOM, Los Angeles; and The Office of James Burnett, Solana Beach, Calif.

“Landscapes can be beautiful in California, but it’s not cold weather work,” Uhen said. “I also liked this team’s modern, clean designs. We have a limited budget, but a budget I think we can work with. There are a myriad of outside issues that affect a small piece of property and Graef had a better understanding of those types of issues than anybody.”

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