West side story

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:40 pm

For years, MacArthur Square has been one of the least-visited venues in downtown Milwaukee. Public access to the massive park, located just east of the Milwaukee County Courthouse on top of a parking garage and one story above street level, is poor.

“It’s not a public place in the sense that the public uses it,” said city planner Robert Greenstreet. “There’s no reason to be up there.”

City officials have long wondered what to do with the underutilized place.

However, with the help of Milwaukee-based Planning and Design Institute Inc. and a graduate student from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, city officials now are crafting a dramatic plan to transform MacArthur Square from a dead zone into a vital part of downtown Milwaukee.

Greenstreet, who is also the dean of UWM’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning, provided a broad vision to remake MacArthur Square and asked Lawrence Witzling, a UWM professor and the president of Planning and Design Institute, to work on developing a detailed plan.

A $50,000 grant from the Richard and Ethel Herzfeld Foundation provided funding for the project. UWM grad student Franz Heitzer took on the project and worked with Planning and Design Institute to develop the MacArthur Square plan.

MacArthur Square is one of several real estate sites in flux on the west side of downtown Milwaukee (see accompanying story).

This is not the first time the city has received input from UWM for a city planning project. For example, UWM faculty and students developed the plans to redevelop the Park East Freeway corridor.

“Sometimes, it takes somebody with a fresh view to say, ‘You know, this problem could be solved if we take a bold approach,’” Witzling said. “We took the concept (from Greenstreet) and created an overall master plan diagram of how the buildings, street system and circulation would be organized.”

The conceptual redevelopment plan for MacArthur Square is indeed bold. It calls for reconnecting MacArthur Square with the city’s street grid and bringing commercial development to much of the current green space. About 7.25 acres would be available for commercial development, based on the plan.

Development at MacArthur Square could include office buildings, condominiums, a hotel and a dormitory for nearby Milwaukee Area Technical College, Greenstreet said. The buildings would have parking space in the MacArthur Square structure.

The open space in and around MacArthur Square would be reduced from 22.5 acres to 13.5 acres, based on the conceptual plan.

“What we propose is less space, but it’s more active space,” Witzling said. “We’re hoping for a lot more use, because there will be buildings opening directing onto it.”

The most significant change in the plan would be a pair of bridges rising along Kilbourn Avenue starting in front of the Milwaukee Theatre, over North Sixth Street and up to MacArthur Square. Kilbourn Avenue, which currently ends at Sixth Street, would then continue to North Ninth Street, located in front of the Milwaukee County Courthouse. Ramps would connect 6th Street to Kilbourn Avenue up on MacArthur Square. The tunnels connecting Kilbourn Avenue to I-43 would remain.

“You would enter and leave the freeway the same way you do now,” Witzling said.

The bridge concept for Kilbourn Avenue is similar to a bridge in New York where Park Avenue is elevated up to Grand Central Station.

In addition, the MacArthur Square plan calls for raising North Seventh and North Ninth streets up to MacArthur Square, and extending North Eighth Street through the square and then curving to connect it with Ninth Street.

“To get people into (MacArthur Square), we have to provide access,” Greenstreet said. “If you get infrastructure and streets up there, what you have is the opportunity to create building sites. There are a lot of opportunities for development.”

The plan envisions that development would swallow up much of the underutilized green space at MacArthur Square. The open space that would remain includes a plaza in front of the Milwaukee County Courthouse (with a mix of hard space and green space), and open areas between some of the buildings. City officials hope the county changes the east side of the courthouse, which faces MacArthur Square and the rest of downtown, into the main entrance to the building.

“It’s a much more powerful experience of getting into the courthouse,” Greenstreet said.

The MacArthur Square parking garage would be extended to Sixth Street to provide more parking space to serve the additional development. In addition, shafts would be added to allow natural light into the parking garage and provide places for elevators or stairs that people parking in the garage could take directly up to MacArthur Square’s new street level.

Richard “Rocky” Marcoux, commissioner of the Department of City Development, said the MacArthur Square plans are a “very exciting” prospect for the city.

“We could set the table for a very large amount of development that could provide a tremendous boost to the tax base, provide a significant public amenity and create jobs,” he said.

The MacArthur Square parking garage is already badly in need of repairs. The estimated cost is $18 million, Marcoux said. The structure has substantial leakage and problems with its HVAC system, Greenstreet said.

Adding buildings above the aging MacArthur Square parking garage could pose some engineering challenges. However, since the parking structure needs to be rebuilt, it should be done so to accommodate development above it, Witzling said.

“We already have an obligation to repair that garage,” Marcoux said. “Instead of just repairing it and calling it a day, this proposal looks at a much larger vision for that area.”

“The city is going to have to invest a huge amount of money just to keep the status quo,” Greenstreet said. “This seemed to be the opportunity to think about what it could be.”

It could take years for the project to become a reality. City officials will need to build a public consensus for the project and gain approval from the Common Council and the Milwaukee County Board, because MacArthur Square is a county park. The parking structure is owned by the city.

“This is a big idea,” Greenstreet said. “Big ideas need a lot of public input and discussion. We’re still very much in the discussion stage.”

To further fan the flames for ideas for the property, the city plans to hold a design charrette, in which architects will be shown the MacArthur Square plans and will be invited to design buildings for one of the commercial development sites.

City officials also must determine the costs and how to pay for the project. A likely funding source would be tax incremental financing (TIF), Greenstreet and Marcoux said. In that case, the tax revenue from development at MacArthur Square would be used to pay for the infrastructure improvements, including the bridges to bring Kilbourn Avenue up to the square.

“We’re hoping to get people excited about what MacArthur Square could be,” Greenstreet said. “For so long, we have turned a blind eye to it because you can’t get there. People didn’t think about it. We’ve kind of forgotten it. But everyone that’s been up to MacArthur Square should be intrigued that something could actually be made of it.”

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