There is a major public-asset giveaway at stake in the city’s arena-subsidy package that Milwaukee residents have just a few days to try to prevent. Common Council members must hear from citizens before they vote on Tuesday, Sept. 22. In addition to receiving 30 acres of public land for free from the county and state, the Milwaukee Bucks owners also are demanding one block of Fourth Street to use for a Bucks-controlled commercial plaza.
An arena-deal amendment introduced by Ald. Bob Bauman would protect the public’s long-term interest by keeping Fourth Street open and available for current and future uses as needed. Bauman’s provision would retain city ownership of North Fourth Street (between Highland and Juneau avenues) instead of ceding control of it to the Bucks. He said the city instead could work with the Bucks to create a temporary pedestrian plaza by closing the street during games and other events, as is done in Indianapolis and Boston. The city could also allow other changes to the street layout without vacating the street.
Irreversibly closing one block of this north-south connector would likely make the arena complex a dead zone when there are no arena events. Even entertainment malls such as the Bucks are proposing are often ghost towns except during big events. Dead-ending Fourth Street would further cut off Bronzeville from downtown, worsening decades-long “urban-renewal’ follies. It would create a clogging dam to raise the Bucks’ revenue stream by adding an unnecessary traffic barrier.
This area of Westown is already a confusing maze of streets, some one-way, dominated by monolithic buildings. An even bigger arena plus a block-long multi-story bar mall will not make the district any friendlier. (Nor will flooding the hospitality market with a highly subsidized entertainment mall that attempts to out-compete existing local businesses.) Closing off Fourth Street at Highland would also overburden Old World Third Street, a narrower street where brickwork is already the worse for wear.
The city has tools to make all of Westown more friendly to pedestrians, but simply creating a three-acre pedestrian mall is not a panacea. Such malls were popular a few decades ago, such as Chicago’s State Street. After 17 years, that city was able to revert the plaza back to an open street — possible because it had simply been closed and not “vacated” permanently. A plan to create such a plaza on Wisconsin Avenue as part of Marquette University was defeated by the Common Council in 1995. It’s widely believed that the city dodged a potential bullet in rejecting that plan. The area has been revived with Wisconsin Avenue remaining open as a primary east-west thoroughfare.
Mayor Tom Barrett is endorsing vacating 4th Street. However, no traffic study has been commissioned, which is commonly done before such a major abdication of a street. Handing over Fourth Street would be just one of many giveaways to the Bucks owners of city-owned assets, in addition to $47 million in cash borrowing. The city would also cede for free a garage built for $30 million in 1988 plus the former Sydney Hih lot, which taxpayers paid about $1 million to acquire and raze in 2012.
Taxpayers would pay to build this three-acre plaza and the Bucks would reap all revenues from it and pay no taxes — and probably no rent. Of course, people would be able to use the plaza but its primary function would be to create, as Wes Edens said, “the country’s biggest outdoor sports bar.” Other planned uses for the plaza include ticket sales and pep rallies.
Bauman offered an alternative to forever blocking off this downtown thoroughfare as part of this arena-subsidy deal. He said it’s “Urban Planning 101” that cities never give up streets unless it’s absolutely necessary. More temporary solutions would preserve the city’s options relating to both pedestrian and vehicular traffic for generations.
At the very least, the Common Council could vote to delay a decision on vacating 4th Street and conduct a traffic study about short- and long-term implications and impacts.
Promoters are calling it a “public plaza” but the state already passed a bill mandating that the space would serve only the Bucks’ commercial enterprises, limiting its value for other uses. Tell Common Council members that we can’t afford to make the concrete “Fortress on Fourth” even more forbidding. We need to keep Milwaukee’s streets — and options — open.
Update on Fourth Street closing, Oct. 1, 2015
The issue of permanently closing North Fourth Street was removed from the City of Milwaukee’s arena funding approved by the Common Council on Sept. 22. A provision was added that would enable the city to reclaim a closed-off Fourth Street if the Bucks stop operating the plaza through a 30-year, no-rent arena lease. That protection for the city was a nod to the fact that the Bucks could still leave town in the interim — and primarily have to cover only unpaid arena debt.
A request to “vacate” Fourth Street will have to proceed through the usual regulatory channels, including review by the council’s Public Works Committee, not yet scheduled.
One factor the council will need to consider is that the Bucks’ proposed “pedestrian mall”— created by closing off a street — is a failed model popularized in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The only ones that have succeeded are in settings with high existing foot traffic such as Times Square. Not a single pedestrian mall has revived a low-pedestrian area and many such projects actually have depressed commerce. That’s why 89 percent of pedestrian malls in the U.S. have failed, with most reopened as streets.
Urban-planning experts, including Milwaukee’s former Mayor John Norquist, are calling for the Bucks and the city to pursue other options. Norquist, the retired CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, recently told the Milwaukee Business Journal: “I just think that the Bucks should back off from closing Fourth Street. I don’t think that’s a good idea.”