Milwaukee enjoys a unique position among other U.S. cities for several reasons. Some benefits, such as its location on Lake Michigan, a busy port, a strong arts and entertainment community and a close proximity to numerous destinations both cultural and natural, are obvious.
Milwaukee is a city of friendly and educated people that is not so big that it is still feels like a town. Not much has changed here as compared to Chicago, and in many ways, that’s a good thing.
It seems that Milwaukee is a city that somehow feels a little lost among the bigger players. It has a few ball teams and a noteworthy museum addition, a couple of good universities and some serious good times at several summertime festivals. But some of the plans for the city seem to be an effort to "put us on the map," an obvious effort to attract companies and the educated class, which, for Milwaukee to grow in all the right ways, it needs to do.
However, one of the things that attracted me to Milwaukee was its charm (yes, charm) and a hip-ness that lies not too far beneath the surface. It is a unique place that my friend from Boston, after a business trip here, calls his "new favorite city."
My hometown of San Francisco is perhaps the coolest place in the country and I think it has more to do with a feeling one gets there than it does with the usual tourist sites like the Golden Gate Bridge or Ghirardelli Square. Things are happening there and one can just sense that. The people there don’t care what the rest of the world thinks, an attitude that I think is the very essence of "cool."
So I think the first mistake Milwaukeeans often make is to maintain an inferiority complex. "Well, we’re not exactly Chicago or anything like that…" is unfortunately a common phrase I hear around these parts.
There are some exciting things happening in Milwaukee, for sure, but there are a few things from a development perspective it must consider if it ever wants to achieve its desired status upgrade.
Architectural strategy based on timeless design and its own vernacular.
Although some would argue that traditional architecture is "old-fashioned" and foolishly nostalgic, there are numerous places in Milwaukee that are a real treat for the senses. The city needs to look at its "missing teeth" and ask, "What is appropriate?"
A walk down west Wisconsin Avenue and looking at the blue box at the corner of Third Street will demonstrate how filling in the empty spaces in a careless manner can provide tension and disillusionment. In retrospect, what would have been the better choice? How about something along the lines of 100 E. Wisconsin Ave.? Same approximate land area, same decade and same available technology – what happened?
A strict adherence to a more timeless design strategy will yield positive results, creating real places people would wish to experience and revisit over and over again. Instead of feeling like being in a showroom of individual architectural “statements” that have no regard one for another and do nothing to create a cohesive street wall that welcomes pedestrian activity, there should be an insistence that new buildings are welcome additions that build upon a wholeness, not unlike one that used to exist downtown.
Milwaukee needs the courage to continue where it left off and carve out for itself a unique identity based upon its own heritage and traditions instead of wishing to become like so many other cities that all look and behave like each other. There have been some that claim that the sights and sounds of cranes and jackhammers mean that things are happening in Milwaukee. Is the new Interstate 794 any less the pox upon downtown that it was before? Anything is not better than nothing. Anything other than that which enhances the quality of life in the city should not be viewed as true progress.
Avoidance of designs submitted by "starchitects" and other outside influences more interested in adding to their respective portfolios than enhancing Milwaukee’s quality of life. Most wouldn’t realize what a lucky break the Santiago Calatrava-designed museum addition was. Like so many other well-known architects of today, most of the designer’s work looks disturbingly similar and interchangeable (always white, always skeletal in form). In fact, most of his works aren’t buildings at all. Take for instance his design for the PATH terminal in Manhattan.
The Milwaukee Art Museum addition, seen as a building, is marginally successful – its use per square foot is inefficient–but instead viewed as a piece of public sculpture it works stunningly well. Yes, the museum is fantastic, but is there anyone who really moves somewhere because of a landmark (St. Louis, San Antonio)? Future reliance upon celebrities like Daniel Liebeskind and Frank Gehry could spell disaster.
A reexamination of the numerous benefits of local (light-rail) and regional (KRM) transit. As mentioned, there seems to be a prevailing attitude among many that Milwaukee is an inferior stepchild of Chicago, so to speak. Well, what are some of the attributes that make Chicago a great city? It has arts and entertainment, a plethora of super restaurants, some truly great buildings. So does Milwaukee. Chicago could be just a much bigger version of Milwaukee. It has more good but also more bad. Yet, it is truly a world-class city. Having a transit link more accessible (and affordable) than Amtrak would do wonders to create an impression that we are partners, part of the same whole. Having the option of living in Milwaukee without the bad traffic and higher home prices, yet feeling a part of a larger network, would be attractive to many looking to relocate. Smart people want to be where there is a prevalence of wise decision-making.
Can one think of a great city that doesn’t have its own rail line? London, Paris, New York, San Francisco, D.C. all have good transit options. Why not Milwaukee? The city needs to have the foresight to plan ahead.
Milwaukee could end up as the city many of us would like it to be, or it could stubbornly refuse wise enhancements with a provincial attitude that states: "This is the way it’s always been and we like it just the way it is." The city is going to change – that’s a given. The only thing that remains to be seen is whether it will grow badly and then stagnate or become the realization of our best hopes and aspirations, a city with an identity all its own and a timeless quality that makes many say: "I want to live here!"
Craig Kelly of Shorewood is the founder of Timeless Places, a Design-Build company in its beginning stages that will focus upon mixed-use and residential development. He can be reached at email@example.com.