When Milwaukee officials unveil multi-year plans for key city neighborhoods, there is often a lot of fanfare – colorful drawings of ambitious projects eliciting excitement from residents and media alike.
But once the plan is approved and filed away as part of daily business, residents can often be left wondering when any of the grand, or even more practical, plans will come to fruition.
The recently unveiled draft of the “Connec+ing MKE - Downtown Plan 2040” is full of ambitious ideas for nearly every corner of the downtown Milwaukee area, from renderings showing a reimagined MacArthur Square with soccer courts and other amenities to as-yet unfunded plans to extend of The Hop streetcar to Westown, Bronzeville, Walker’s Point and the East Side.
But there are also plenty of projects that residents could see taking shape as early as this year or next.
Vel R. Phillips Plaza, streetscaping
In Westown, construction will begin this year on Vel R. Phillips Plaza – a 30,000-square-foot gathering place at West Wisconsin and North Vel R. Phillips avenues designed to honor the late alderwoman, jurist, attorney and civil rights activist.
Slated to be completed by summer 2024 – in line with the completion of the Wisconsin Center expansion and the start of the Republican National Convention – the plaza will feature a 2,900-square-foot food and beverage retail space, a garden, a flex space that could host farmers markets, food trucks or other community events, public art installations, and a station to accommodate Milwaukee County’s Bus-Rapid Transit Line.
The $15.75 million financing package for the project, which comes from a tax increment financing district, also includes $4.35 million for infrastructure and lighting improvements in the area and $500,000 for the Commercial Revitalization Grant Program that provides financial assistance to commercial property owners for building renovations and improvements.
The project will coincide with street improvements along Vel R. Phillips Avenue, which will make the street more pedestrian friendly and reinforce its connection to the Deer District.
Speaking at a press event celebrating the passage of a funding resolution for the project, Alderwoman Milele Coggs, who considered Phillips a mentor, said the plaza will provide key amenities while teaching visitors about the local trailblazer.
“As we look at the nearly half-billion-dollar expansion of the Wisconsin Center that is taking place right behind us and think about the tens of thousands of additional folks that will be coming to visit our great city of Milwaukee, it makes so much sense that as they come for the conferences and conventions that their experience is elevated by being able to see a wonderful plaza right across the street that helps to uplift and remind folks about one of our great treasures right here in Wisconsin, Ms. Vel R. Phillips,” Coggs said.
[caption id="attachment_569359" align="alignnone" width="1280"]
A rendering of the Vel R. Phillips Plaza.[/caption]
Couture transit center, The Hop Lakefront Line
As work begins on Vel R. Phillips Plaza, streetcar crews should be well on their way to finishing the final pieces of The Hop’s Lakefront Line.
After years of delay tied to construction delays for The Couture, construction on the Lakefront Line quietly resumed in late April. Crews are working on the 800 block of East Michigan Street in the shadows of the rising apartment tower as they prepare to lay parts of the final half-mile horseshoe of track for a line that will eventually take streetcar passengers from Broadway east along Michigan Street, into a modern transit center on the ground floor of The Couture, and then west along East Clybourn Street to North Milwaukee Street.
The lion’s share of the $14.2 million spur was completed in 2019, but completion of the east end was delayed as officials and contractors waited until enough progress was made on The Couture to allow for the bones of the transit center to be laid. Developed by Barrett Lo visionary Development, the 44-story apartment tower is slated to be complete by early 2024, but some residents could begin moving in this fall.
Speaking about construction on the Lakefront Line, Department of Public Works commissioner Jerrel Kruschke said the final leg of the spur is expected to be completed by the end of July. Once the track is completed, there will be a few months of testing. Service on the line is expected to begin sometime by the end of the year, he said.
“Right now, we are targeting the beginning of November,” Kruschke said. “We’re pretty excited.”
Once done, the spur will include three new stops: one at Jackson and Michigan streets, one at Jackson and Clybourn streets, and the stop at The Couture transit center. In addition to hosting the streetcar, the transit center will also serve as a key stop for the East-West Bus Rapid Transit line, which is also expected to be ready for riders later this year.
As the transit center at The Couture takes shape, project watchers can also keep their eyes peeled for a 142-foot-long, 28-foot-tall curved “LED wall screen,” slated to be erected sometime this fall.
State and Water streets
Another near-term goal of Connec+ing MKE - Downtown Plan 2040 is to redevelop the northwest corner of East State and North Water streets. That is currently the site of the Marcus Performing Arts Center parking ramp at 130 E. State St., but city officials are on the cusp of issuing a request for proposals seeking redevelopment ideas for the site.
The new downtown plan calls for the sprawling parking structure to be replaced with “a new high-density, mixed-use development that adds density and vibrancy to the district.” The hope is that giving the site a more active use might spur development of underutilized sites in the area including surface parking lots along Water Street and the RiverWalk, the plan states.
Other “short-term” projects
Other “short-term” priority projects listed in the plan include extending the street grid north of West Wells Street and west of North Sixth Street and providing ADA compliant pedestrian access near the terminus of East Kilbourn Avenue between North James Lovell and Sixth streets.
The plan also calls for the city to redesign several downtown streets to make them safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. Those slated to take place in the next few years include Sixth, Walnut, Van Buren, and East Wells Street from North Broadway to North Van Buren Street.
Officials with the city’s Department of Public Works and Wisconsin Department of Transportation are already in the design phase of the Wells Street reconstruction project, and construction is currently slated to take place sometime next year.
Those interested in reviewing the entire draft of the Connec+ing MKE plan may do so at www.milwaukee.gov/downtownplan. Dialogue is encouraged at www.connectingmke.com, where users can continue to participate in the virtual open house and provide feedback until May 22.
The plan will be presented to the City Plan Commission and the Milwaukee Common Council for adoption as part of the City’s Comprehensive Plan this summer.