Bracing against blustery April winds, elected officials and Milwaukee business leaders gathered in a parking lot at West Wisconsin and North Vel R. Phillips avenues on Monday afternoon to mark a key step toward transforming the corner into a new public gathering space to honor late Milwaukee alderwoman, judge, and civil rights activist Vel R. Phillips.
After more than a year of planning, alderpersons, Mayor Cavalier Johnson, Downtown Business Improvement District officials, and city department heads, including Lafayette Crump, commissioner for the Department of City Development were there to watch Johnson sign a unanimously approved Common Council resolution earmarking $15.75 million from the Park East Corridor Redevelopment tax increment finance (TIF) district to fund construction of the approximately 30,000-square-foot Vel R. Phillips plaza.
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/beverage retail space, a manicured 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 TIF district financing package 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 plaza will also contain informational kiosks aimed at educating residents and visitors alike about the contributions of Vel R. Phillips who was both the first woman and the first African American to serve on the Milwaukee Common Council, the first female judge in Milwaukee County and the first black judge in the state.
She was also the first woman to hold the office of secretary of state in Wisconsin and the first African American to win a statewide election.
Up until her passing in April of 2018, Phillips remained an active leader in pushing for social justice, education, and equal opportunities for minorities in Milwaukee.
“What an exciting day for Westown and the entire city of Milwaukee. I am honored to be joined by local elected officials and local leaders as as we prepare to move forward on a new, vibrant, urban space that will honor a trailblazing Milwaukee leader and provide the community with important civic and transit amenities right where we are standing here today,” Johnson said. “Today, we are honoring a pioneer. … The halls of power were never the same once Vel R. Philips arrived. Vel opened the door, and really all of Wisconsin, particularly for African American and Latino elected officials – all of us owe her a debt of gratitude.”
Speaking on behalf of the Phillips Family, Vel R. Phillips’ son, Michael Phillips thanked the city and its elected officials for their work to make the project a reality, noting that next year, when the plaza is slated to open to the public, will be centennial of her birth.
“My mom did open some doors, and she did change some things, I think none more significant than the ice cream menu at the Chocolate Factory. I used to take her just about every day, and they named an ice cream flavor after her,” he quipped.
Sixth District Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs noted that she had the pleasure of having Phillips as a mentor and benefitted from the trails the late leader forged.
“She knocked through the ceilings and kicked through the doors. …Without her having made those sacrifices, I wouldn’t be here and (neither) would many others, so it just makes sense to honor her in everyway that we can,” said Coggs, who sits on the Wisconsin Center District board.
“As we look at the nearly half-billion-dollar expansion of the Wisconsin Center that is taking place right behind us,” Coggs said, “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.”
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