Opponents of Third Ward indoor venue complex pitch alternative plan for land near Summerfest grounds

Specifics of proposal remain unclear

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A group of Historic Third Ward residents and business owners have made their next move against Madison-based Frank Productions‘ proposed music venue complex near the Summerfest grounds.

Mobilizing under the name Save the Third Ward, the group has come up with their own vision for the under-developed land surrounding the south end of Henry Maier Festival Park. Plans drawn up by Milwaukee-based Quorum Architects call for a mix of open green space, public plazas, mixed-use development, and bridge access to the adjacent Lakeshore State Park.

The proposed development would transform an area that has long served as surface parking lots for Summerfest and other ethnic festivals. One of those lots, located just south of the Summerfest administration building, is where Frank Productions subsidiary FPC Live plans to build its two-venue concert hall, with intentions to use the 1,850 spots across the street for paid event parking.

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The project has faced criticism since it was first announced in November, largely related to neighborhood safety, livability, surrounding property values, and street parking. In January, public relations executive Craig Peterson stepped in to help organize some opponents into a group that calls itself Save the Third Ward. With their recent proposal, the group aims to “create dialog” about what the future of the area could become – without the presence of a new 4,800-capacity music venue. Save the Third Ward and Quorum Architects will present their ideas at a public information session, Thursday, Feb. 17, 5:30-7 at the Milwaukee Public Market.

While the group claims their vision would be a “better fit” for the neighborhood and a solution for improving “quality of life,” what it lacks is specifics on cost, funding, management and the like. What’s more, the proposed development site is under lease by Milwaukee World Festival Inc. until 2030. Milwaukee World Festival did not respond to a request for comment.

But Peterson, who is president and chief executive officer of Milwaukee-based Zigman Joseph PR, has seen a move like this work before. He’s known for leading a successful effort to derail the Pabst City development project, which was proposed in 2005 at the former Pabst Brewery Complex, now known as The Brewery District

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“We provided some general ideas on what could happen there, but we didn’t have specifics nor did we own the property but by creating the dialog it got developers and others thinking,” Peterson said. “During that process, one proposal came out of it right away from Johnny V and then after Johnny V’s proposal surfaced, then (developer) Joseph Zilber came to the table and he had a whole, much larger plan that encompassed that whole area.” 

Peterson is pushing for a similar outcome this time, so that the land surrounding Summerfest “isn’t condemned to being a parking lot and eyesore” for decades to come. Speaking on behalf of concerned condo owners in the neighborhood and other stakeholders, Peterson argued that with the growing popularity of rideshare services Uber and Lift along with other mass transit options like MCTS buses and private shuttles, the demand for parking at Summerfest is much less than it once was. And the need will likely continue to shrink in the years ahead, especially once The Hop streetcar’s lakefront line can transport festival goers almost as far east as the ground’s north entrance doors, he said.

The FPC project will ensure that surface lots remain as such – even if they’re largely underutilized, Peterson said, explaining that real estate lenders won’t approve loans for developments without ample parking. Plus, the property’s zoning code requires 1,500 parking spaces. Peterson noted that the Save the Third Ward’s vision does not seek to take over all of Summerfest’s parking, just a small percentage.

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Asked why the group is taking action now when the land in question has sat empty for years, Peterson said there wasn’t a catalyst before FPC Live proposed its project. He said it was a wake up call for surrounding property owners.

“When they began realizing that that concrete they look at every day may be there for the rest of their lifetime and that there would be no future of public space, public art, cultural opportunities in that area, that was a wake up call that it’s time for them to get engaged and be part of the process,” he said.

While future land use is a relevant issue to explore, Alderman Bob Bauman, he represents the neighborhood, said he isn’t convinced that Save the Third Ward’s vision is rooted in a greater interest to truly breathe life into an underdeveloped pocket of one of downtown’s most affluent neighborhoods.

“This is part of an orchestrated effort to defeat the concert venue project. Once that’s defeated, this all goes away,” he said, suggesting that killing the project is the Save the Third Ward group’s sole motive. 

In theory, the group’s vision could certainly come to fruition if it were to pass the city’s land use vetting process, but the whole scenario remains moot so long as Milwaukee World Festival holds the lease, said Bauman.

Save the Third Ward touts its ideas as consistent with the Third Ward Neighborhood Comprehensive Plan, which was approved by the Common Council in 2005 to offer specific land use and development guidelines for each section of the neighborhood. Suggestions for the South Residential District include additional residential development with ground-floor commercial uses, as well as public green space. It discourages “industrial expansion or any new industrial uses;” a music venue is categorized as an industrial use.

Still, FPC’s project is proposed on private land owned by Milwaukee World Festival and its use is approved under the property’s zoning code, which means neither the city nor a neighborhood plan can do much to stand in its way.

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