Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:29 pm
Bob Greenstreet is wearing several important hats. The dean of the School of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for 13 years, Greenstreet was recently appointed by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to also be the city planner/architect.
Greenstreet will resign from the city Plan Commission, which he chairs, and will then work for both the university and the city. He also has served as the interim chancellor of UWM for about a year and will continue to do so until July 15 when new chancellor Carlos Santiago takes over.
Now, developers who want to build in Milwaukee will have to satisfy Greenstreet if they want the mayor to support their projects. Small Business Times managing editor Andrew Weiland met with Greenstreet recently to learn more about his vision for the city. The following are excerpts of that interview.
SBT: Your plate is obviously already full here at the university. Why do you want to be the city planner/architect too?
Greenstreet: "A school like ours, to be most affective, has to be integrated with the city. We have done that through a number of initiatives. I’ve always had this vision of making it much more structurally significant to work in a partnership. I outlined that in a paper to Tom Barrett, and he was very much taken with the idea. There was an article about what does Tom know about development? Tom was very open. He said, ‘I don’t know about planning and architecture, but I know it’s very important.’ So he asked me, ‘I would like you to advise me on that.’ It fitted in with my plans for how the school could serve the city.
SBT: How do you see yourself balancing the two jobs?
GREENSTREET: "I’m still being paid by the university and the city is going to buy out a chunk of my time. We’ve tried to tailor the positions, reducing the city position to shed some of the bureaucratic stuff, and I will have some of my duties as dean taken over by some of my colleagues. I’m not worried I’m going to get totally swamped, but you never know. This is an exploratory, think-out-of-the-box exercise. We’re going to give it a try for a year. I am providing detailed reports to the campus to demonstrate how my time is being used. If either role suffers, then we’ll call it quits. But we think it’s a noble experiment that’s worth a shot, because if we can make it work, I think both could really benefit."
SBT: You’re replacing previous city planner Peter Park. He had a reputation for being a tough guy for developers to please. On the other hand, many credited him for raising the bar for the quality of development in the city. What will your approach be? Will it be similar or different than Park’s? What can developers expect when they bring projects to you?
GREENSTREET: "Peter and I share a similar philosophy about good design and city development, which is not surprising considering he was one of our students. I think a lot of credit goes to him for establishing some standards for design in the city. He and I worked together on the zoning task force to update the zoning code. My sort of whole purpose for going into that, which has become the slogan I think of for city development, is doing better development faster.
"What that means is you try and get as much good development going in the city that you can. We really need to encourage developers to work here as much as possible. There are plenty of opportunities. Expanding the tax base is absolutely critical, expanding the quality and range of housing, of commerce, of industry. We do everything that we can to try to encourage developers to come here. Having said that, we want to make sure that the quality of what they do adds to the value of the city as much as possible."
SBT: Under the Norquist administration, the mayor pushed his new urbanist vision of a dense, pedestrian-friendly city. Do you share that philosophy? Are you a new urbanist?
GREENSTREET: "I don’t like labels, but I share the philosophy, yeah. I think Milwaukee prospers by the addition of more people living in the city, and I think the quality of their existence grows as more people join them and the city benefits accordingly. More people living downtown means downtown becomes safer than it already is, more people walking around. It means more services that those people need, grocery stores, clothes stores, whatever. "They need entertainment. More entertainment means that more people will come to the downtown because there are places to go. So it’s a snowball effect. And it’s going in the right way. It’s going slowly. Things don’t move quickly in Milwaukee, but the growth in population is coming back, so I don’t have too many fears about the downtown.
"I’d like to see a little more attention on the neighborhoods. We have a community design service that we offer through the school that’s worked with over 40 neighborhoods in the last three years. We provide design services to help neighborhoods, that really have no access to traditional architectural services because of cost, to visualize what their future might be and help them look for financing to provide some input to improve their neighborhoods one fa?ade at a time, one building block at a time."
SBT: How does the university currently work with the city and how do you want to expand on that?
GREENSTREET: "The city to us is a great place to teach students. Many of the classes we teach use sites and projects in the city as exploratory tools. It’s our laboratory, if you like. Some of those projects are plugged into what the city is actually interested in doing. Some of them actually have an impact. O’Donnell Park, for example, started in the school. East Pointe Commons, the tearing down of the Park East Freeway, the Third Ward market that’s going to begin (construction) this year – these were all projects that began as ideas in the school. These are ideas that, well they’re free, which is good. They are the results of thinking by lots of very talented young minds, so you’re thinking in a very broad range of ideas.
"This particular opportunity is a great way of coordinating the incredible output of work in the school into the incredible needs of the city in a more coordinated way. Being plugged into the decision-making structure of the city, I think we can be more affective in serving the city, and the city can be better served by the incredible generator of ideas that we have in the school."
SBT: You touched on the removal of the Park East freeway spur. As city planner, what do you envision being developed there?
GREENSTREET: "It’s a very important opportunity for the city that we want to move, but I don’t think we want to rush, because once the land is filled, we’ll never get an opportunity to rework it. The most important thing to do with it is to reweave the urban fabric in that part of town that ties back the neighborhoods into the city. It’s a great place to do that.
"When the freeway was blasted through there, it just took a scar through the city and just separated areas. Freeways just kill life around it for blocks. We’ve got an opportunity to reweave that. Ultimately and at the end of the day, development by private developers will play a critical part in the success of that area. It’s a great opportunity to bring tax base into the city. It’s a great opportunity to bring more people into the city, both residential and tourists. So I would envision in a perfect world we would see a rich balance of residential, commercial and entertainment (uses)."
SBT: What are your thoughts on the proposed community benefits ordinance that would mandate some affordable housing and living wage benefits for development in the Park East corridor? Some developers say those requirements would discourage them from building there.
GREENSTREET: "There are two areas (being debated). There’s the community benefits (ordinance) and there’s also the open space group (that wants more parkland in the Park East corridor) as well. I think they can both be discussed in a way that meets people’s needs.
"Affordable housing is important. I think we need to assess what affordable housing availability there is in the neighborhood now before we start allotting areas of land to it. I know there were some issues also with labor wages, and I know the city has taken a position in the development community in terms of costs. It’s important not to put down too many criteria at the beginning that would deter development. On the other hand, having some criteria to make sure it doesn’t end up as a total kind of gold rush town is important too. There’s some negotiations still to be done."
SBT: What’s your take on the Harley Davidson museum planned for the Menomonee Valley? Some people have criticized its design, particularly the surface parking lots, and say it’s not dense enough.
GREENSTREET: "I know it has upset some people who believe that the Menomonee Valley plan would be violated by this. You balance practical need with visionary ideals. You have to balance the two together. This to me looks like it’s going to take place. I think our job has to be to make sure it is done in the best possible way that mitigates against some of the factors that have been discussed. It’s a huge benefit to the city and will draw other activities to that area."
SBT: What’s your vision for the Menomonee Valley?
GREENSTREET: " The Menomonee Valley has incredible potential for any number of things. It’s so close to the downtown. As yet, we are not entirely sure what that full potential is. There has not been a massive rush to build on the industrial land that we put aside. Heavy industry doesn’t appear to be a major focus for the future of Milwaukee. So, you’ve got to think creatively on how to best use the resources that you have to balance between the needs of creating jobs, which is critical because that improves the tax base of the city, which is absolutely vital for a city like ours.
"The more you can expand that tax base, the more you can do within the city to make sure it’s a really livable place. The potential of the Menomonee Valley is enormous. I thought the plans that were developed for the long parks between Miller Park and the lake were terrific. I doubt that will be exactly what will happen, because there are other forces. You’ve got to be flexible."
SBT: Several groups have proposed different projects for the lakefront. Most of the projects have generated some controversy and parks advocates say the lakefront should remain as open space. How do you think the lakefront should be developed?
GREENSTREET: "I think it needs to be done carefully. I think selective, non-intrusive development is a good idea. The (Lake Park Bistro) restaurant and Alterra (Coffee Roasters) is a good example. They have brought more people into the parks, which makes them safer."
SBT: So much of land use and urban planning is tied together with transportation. Do you think there should be a light rail system built in Milwaukee?
GREENSTREET: "I think the (downtown) connector system (should be built). I don’t think light rail is entirely feasible, because the infrastructure it requires is very expensive and quite frankly we don’t have the population base, nor the parking problems.
"There are traffic problems heading out to the west, but we’re quite blessed here by comparison to some cities like Los Angeles or London or Chicago in the (traffic) issues that we have. You only really get a very effective public transportation system when you have a dense population that has to use it. We don’t have it here. "The kind of infrastructure and the cost necessary for a full light rail system doesn’t strike me as practical. But the connector system you have heard about seems to be to be eminently sensible. It’s a relatively little infrastructure cost that can be heavily subsidized by the federal government. It’s a system that doesn’t require massive infrastructure relocation in the streets. You just need a narrow channel. These European trolleys can clip out and drive around (obstructions) on a diesel motor and get back in (the track) again. It’s a very good system. I think the notion of having very specific routes, instead of trying to cover everything, exploring it just for a run from Miller Park right up to UWM coming through the east side, which is the densest populated area in the state, makes a lot of sense.
"What I would like to see happen is the connector system coming straight up through the upper east side, through the downtown. I know UWM is very excited about the idea of it being connected to the downtown for our students, faculty and staff. I’d love to see it go right out to Miller Park to link together many of the attractions and then of course a loop into the neighborhood up through Walnut (Street) that will also help to bring a heavy population of the city and give them some services as well. It’s a nicely thought-out plan. I have high hopes for that."
SBT: How do you define good, quality architecture? Can you define it? Or is it like, "I know it when I see it."
GREENSTREET: "Yeah, we know the Calatrava building is great. We know the City Hall is a great building, and we look at the (UWM) union, and we know that it’s not great. We just know that. I think you’ve got to be careful about being too precious and thinking that every building has to be a new land-breaking piece of architecture. Buildings can be good neighbors to other buildings in a very modest way and still play a very valuable part.
"We still have a rich stock of historic buildings in the city. I think that heritage is carefully guarded by the people in the city and that’s good, we must continue to do that. I don’t see anything wrong with having a rich array of historic buildings and a lot of very new buildings along with them. That’s just a natural continuum to me. I’m not in favor of freezing cities in time, as has been done in some cities. I’d like to see a good juxtaposition as long as the new buildings are good."
June 11, 2004 Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI