Madison-based Frank Productions Concerts won't break ground on its proposed indoor music venue complex for at least another year, but the Historic Third Ward project has already become the center of controversy largely over neighborhood issues like safety, parking, and traffic.
Local residents and business owners vocalized their concerns during two public input sessions hosted by FPC Live, which will operate the two-venue facility as a subsidiary of Frank Productions. It seemed the general consensus of most of the people who attended the public hearings was that the project doesn't belong in what's remained a quiet, primarily upscale-residential pocket of the Third Ward.
The development is proposed on what’s now a surface parking lot owned by Milwaukee World Festivals, located just south of the Summerfest administration building and west of Henry Maier Festival Park. Between its two venues — one with a scalable capacity of up to 800 people and the other with a scalable capacity of up to 4,000 — the facility is expected to host 135 events annually, including concerts and private functions like weddings and corporate events.
While the City of Milwaukee Common Council has little say in the development of the project (it's being built on privately owned land and falls under the permitted uses of the property’s zoning code), there are other approvals that must be granted before the project goes full speed ahead.
Architectural Review Board
The project needs a Certificate of Appropriateness from The Historic Third Ward Architectural Review Board, a seven-person board that reviews and approves the design of new Third Ward buildings. ARB first reviewed the project in December, and FPC Live anticipates "several more meetings" with the group during the design process.
"We have been working with our architects to update and refine several parts of the project based on preliminary feedback, including, among other things, the aesthetics of the western and southern facades, the details of the courtyard space, and the amount, type and placement of glass on the project," said Joel Plant, CEO of Frank Productions.
The ARB convenes monthly, with upcoming meetings scheduled for Feb. 16, March 16 and April 13.
Board of Harbor Commissioners
As proposed, the venue faces east on a private street owned by Port Milwaukee, which means the site doesn't have a legal address. An easement will need to be granted by Port Milwaukee’s Board of Harbor Commissioners, allowing public access to the street and site. Plant said FPC is currently working through the easement request process, with plans to present it at the BHC's April 14 meeting.
Meanwhile, the city is looking into several questions surrounding the issue, said Alderman Robert Bauman at last week's input session.
"What's the criteria for approving or denying an easement? ... Does (FPC) have a right to have their easement considered? Does the (BHC) even have to consider the request? The other open question is as soon as the BHC approves the easement, does that approval then have to be ratified by the Common Council?" said Bauman.
The port's lease agreements are always reviewed by the Common Council, but typically, the BHC takes final action on easements. The lines are blurred in this case, however, because the port owns the land where the public access would be, and leases it to Milwaukee World Festival Inc.
"Port Milwaukee is in regular communication with the project team about the potential easement of land, given Milwaukee World Festivals’ existing lease with the Port. No terms have been finalized," a port spokesperson said via email.
City of Milwaukee Licenses Committee
The venue will need a Class B Tavern license and Public Entertainment Premises license in order to legally operate. Plant has indicated FPC will work to secure the necessary licenses prior to construction.
"We’ll submit the necessary licensing applications when the licensing matters are ripe and ready for review," said Plant.
The licensing process presents an opportunity for the public to object or demand certain conditions, such as hours of operation, said Bauman.
"You could all come testify at the license hearing, you could all come oppose the grant of a license and a majority of the council will make the ultimate decision on that," said Bauman.
The five-member Licenses Committee, which does not include Bauman, have upcoming meetings on Feb. 16, March 8, and April 6.
Question of parking
Another area where the city may have to step in is FPC's intent to use the 1,850-spot surface parking lot directly east of the venue for event parking. That property is owned by the city and leased to Milwaukee World Festival, so the question is whether the city would need to grant usage approval to FPC.
Concert goers could park in the lot for an additional fee. FPC said it is currently working out a deal with Milwaukee World Festival on the management of paid parking options.
Typically, approvals of design elements, easements and licenses are routine and relatively insignificant steps in a larger development process, but in light of intense public scrutiny, these issues hold heavier weight.
A group known as the Friends & Neighbors of the Historic Third Ward has hired public relations executive Craig Peterson, president and chief executive officer of Milwaukee-based Zigman Joseph PR. Earlier this month, the group mailed flyers to condo owners throughout downtown with the message 'Don’t let outsiders destroy our neighborhood.'
Peterson is known for leading a successful effort to derail another major development project, proposed in 2005 at the former Pabst Brewery Complex - now known as The Brewery District.
At the time, most of the 21-acre campus was owned by WEC Energy Group's real estate subsidiary Wispark, which had proposed plans to raze some of the former Pabst buildings and develop a new entertainment district with a House of Blues, movie theater complex, an arcade, and restaurants. The PabstCity project originally called for $75 million in tax incremental financing from the city.
Raising concerns over competition and historic preservation, a coalition of local music venue operators, restaurant owners, hospitality groups and historic preservationists teamed up to defeat the project - and won, when it was rejected by the Common Council.
When FPC's project was announced in November, Peterson said he immediately started fielding phone calls from people in the hospitality and entertainment industries asking, "Are you going to bring the group (that opposed PabstCity) back together again?"
Looking further into the issue, Peterson saw an "organic movement" of Third Ward condo owners, condo associations, apartment dwellers, retailers, and hospitality businesses who were up in arms about the FPC Live project in the Third Ward.
"None of them are professional organizers, so I thought this is an opportunity to perhaps replicate what we successfully did in 2005, and they have the energy to get their voices heard," said Peterson in an interview with BizTimes Milwaukee.
While its formal structure is still in the works, the group has started meeting with architects and planners to look at the project site and suggest alternative development opportunities that are more consistent with the Third Ward Neighborhood Comprehensive Plan
Approved by the Common Council in 2005, the plan divides the district into several areas and provides specific guidelines for land use and development in each portion. FPC's project is proposed in what's known as the South Residential District. In this area, the plan calls for more residential development with ground-floor commercial uses, as well as public green space. It discourages "industrial expansion or any new industrial uses."
Within the next couple of weeks, the group plans to share its ideas on other development opportunities with the rest of the neighborhood "to get people's creative juices flowing," said Peterson.
Another outspoken critic of the FPC Live project is Peter Renner, chief executive officer of Milwaukee-based Renner Architects
, which developed the nearby Harbor Front and Hansen’s Landing condo developments along East Eerie Street. As a resident of one those buildings, Renner says he shares the same concerns of fellow condo owners on the block.
"The biggest problem is the noise," he said in an interview with BizTimes. "When there are concerts at the (American Family Insurance Amphitheater), my unit faces the river, and you can still hear it pretty loud. The traffic for 150 nights a year would be abysmal."
Renner said he's working with John Wirth
, a real estate attorney at Milwaukee-based Mallery s.c. and the mayor of the City of Mequon, but he declined to give specifics. Wirth did not respond to requests for comment.
"There's a lot of legal angles that John Wirth and other lawyers are working on, but I don't want to outline them until I talk to him," he said.