Longtime plans to recreate an African American commercial and cultural district just north of downtown Milwaukee could take a solid step forward with the hiring of a consultant this month.
The consultant will study whether the district could support a performing arts theater and, if that were found to be unfeasible, what might work in its place, said Kimberly Montgomery of the Department of City Development.
The 21st Century Bronzeville District would run along North Avenue from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to Seventh Street and would incorporate venues for music, art and dining.
The current proposal arose from a concept developed in 1999 to recreate an African American business and cultural district similar to the old Bronzeville that was displaced by freeway construction and street widening many years ago. But the 1999 plans fell dormant due to disagreements about the plans and other factors. Mayor Marvin Pratt has resurrected the drive to make the district a reality.
"This would be the best in music, art and cuisine as a year-round destination for tourists and area residents," Montgomery said. "We will build on the successes that King Drive and North Avenue have already seen."
Developer Randy Roth, acting director of the Historic King Drive Business Improvement District, says the time is right to get the project going.
""New leadership has breathed new life into this initiative," Roth said at a recent public meeting on the project, referring to Pratt. "The leadership is getting this project back on everyone’s radar screen."
The area has already seen considerable redevelopment and is a vibrant commercial area. "But this initiative is going to take that development to the next level," Roth said.
Along with the commercial development, which includes both retail and office space, the area has seen strong residential development in the adjacent Brewers Hill neighborhood and on its own south side.
King Drive from downtown to a few blocks north of North Avenue has seen a steady stream of successive developments and redevelopments.
Pratt, noting the successes of downtown developments, has called for a new emphasis on neighborhood development, with this project being one of those efforts.
While business people and developers have done a lot in the area, the city has also been at work. The Redevelopment Authority has acquired land along North Avenue that could be opened for development, Montgomery noted.
She cited similar existing or planned districts in cities such as Indianapolis, where five cultural districts have been created; Pasadena, Calif., were a multi-cultural district is in the works; and Kansas City’s 18th & Vine district which draws up to 400,000 tourists annually.
Kansas City’s district includes a jazz museum, Negro League baseball museum, performing arts center and visitors center.
Milwaukee developer J. Allen Stokes has long been a proponent of the idea, not only for its economic value but also because of its historic value.
"We need to have something to highlight and record our history in this neighborhood," said Stokes, who grew up nearby. "We had something here that was ours, and we need to restore that."
Stokes pointed to the popular one-day Garfield Day festival that draws about 15,000 people to show the potential for economic viability of a new entertainment district.
"You see a lot of activity in other parts of the city. Where is ours?" Stokes asked.
Much of the other activity Stokes and Ald. Marlene Johnson-Odom referred to has been downtown.
"We would like to replicate some of the successes of Water Street," Johnson-Odom said, referring to the Milwaukee restaurant and nightlife district along Water Street.
"Downtown has received much of the attention," added Ald. Fred Gordon. "Now it’s time to shift that attention from downtown to uptown."
The proximity to downtown is a huge advantage for the proposed development, says Pat Algiers, the city’s’ new Department of City Development commissioner.
"This area is in the halo of downtown and can only benefit from what’s happened there," she said at the public hearing. "It’s proximity to downtown is magic in a sense. And so much has already been done in this neighborhood that the new district is a likely success. It will be one of the next big things in this city. We will work to make that sure."
The consultant’s study is expected to be completed by the summer.
Feb. 20, 2004 Small Business Times, Milwaukee