Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist joined us for the CARW Rainmaker event on September 24th at the Garden on Milwaukee Street. Norquist shared his views on urbanism drawing from his experience as the CEO for the Congress for New Urbanism. He also commented on his time as Mayor of Milwaukee and thoughts on where we are today. Norquist was instrumental in the dismantling of the Park East Freeway which now promises to house one of the largest commercial real estate developments in downtown Milwaukee. Event photos may be viewed here.
Here is the article that appeared in the Business Journal following Mayor Norquist’s visit to CARW. It is written by Sean Ryan.
Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, widely regarded as one of the leaders who laid the groundwork for downtown’s resurgence, caught a train back to his former stomping grounds on Thursday to talk about the Park East and arena developments.
He was a speaker at a Commercial Association of Realtors Wisconsin Rainmaker Event on North Milwaukee Street. But before the event, he sat down for an interview in the Milwaukee Public Market to share his thoughts. Norquist was Milwaukee mayor from 1988 to 2004, and was CEO of Congress for the New Urbanism in Chicago until stepping down in 2013.
He still has a general disapproval of public subsidies for development, but said he agrees with the city support for the Milwaukee Bucks arena. He however opposes vacating North Fourth Street between West Highland and West Juneau avenues to create a public plaza between the arena and a Bucks-owned “live block” with restaurants and bars.
Here’s an excerpt from Norquist’s interview with the Milwaukee Business Journal.
Q: What are your thoughts on the things that are happening in the Park East with the Bucks’ proposals and other projects progressing east of the river?
A: “I’m really pleased a lot of development has happened along the corridor, like Manpower and the Beerline and the stuff along Water Street that is leading toward downtown. I’m disappointed the county put those restrictions on the land. I think it would have developed a lot faster and there would have been more competition.
“I think the elected officials, Tom Barrett and the others did what they had to do. Basketball is a very urban sport. It’s the most urban sport. It’s the one professional sport that you see a lot of African-Americans attend, unlike baseball which doesn’t appeal as much as it used to.
“It’s an inner-city sport, so it would have been bad to lose that team. It’s always been ugly when that happens, especially in a small market like Milwaukee. I don’t have any fault for anybody. I think Milwaukee would have survived without it, but it’s good to have it.”
Q: Do you have thoughts about the way the city and the county structured their incentive packages?
A: “Not really. There’s only one thing I think they can correct. It’s not really in the Bucks’ best interest to close Fourth Street. It’s an idea that was done a lot in the ’60s and ’70s. Kansas City created a sports and entertainment district that didn’t work very well.
“They only play 41 games. It’s not going to help them. The basketball arena is in the middle of a downtown. You don’t need an entertainment district around it. If they want to run a couple bars around it near the stadium, fine, but I don’t think you need to close the streets. They could close it on game night I suppose if you wanted to.
“I don’t think it’s really going to help the Bucks. Their forte is sports and getting people to spend money inside the building. I think they’ll end up regretting spending all of that money on an artificial bar scene where there is plenty of that.
“I think it was just a way to make the problem more complex so people wouldn’t know where the key was.”
Q: Where to put their emphasis?
A: “Taxpayers are generally not thrilled with having money separated from their wallets for sports facilities, so it kind of made it sound like it was more than just a subsidy to the Bucks. Ultimately, it was a subsidy to the Bucks. (Herb) Kohl made a big contribution to it, so there was a lot of good spirit about it.
“I just think that the Bucks should back off from closing Fourth Street. I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Q: Even though the footprint of the street itself would become public space?
A: “There’s public space and public space. The park across the street from the cathedral, that’s a great public space. It’s surrounded by buildings. There’s no closed street. It’s a block. It used to be the Milwaukee County courthouse back in the mid-19th century. It’s a park that people love and they use it all of the time.
“Closing the street doesn’t create public space. They experimented with that in New York, but in Times Square you have a million people coming out of subway tunnels, so it will be full of people no matter what, so it works. But the west side of downtown hasn’t quite reached that.”
Q: On the west side of downtown there’s been talk for ages about how to make it as vibrant as the east side.
A: “The city spent a lot of money back in the 1960s trying to sterilize the west side of downtown and turn it into a corporate office park. If you look at the 1962 January 1 Milwaukee Journal you’ll find the GMC (Greater Milwaukee Committee) plan with drawings. Everything would have looked like an office park in New Berlin or something. There were a lot of people living downtown back then, and there are again now and that has been a really good formula for the city. The population has almost doubled downtown.
“That’s why there are people here (in the Milwaukee Public Market). This wouldn’t be here if there weren’t more people living in the 3rd Ward, the Beerline, all of those places.
“Closing the street, that is real ’60s thing to do. I love the Bucks. They have one of the best coaches with Jason Kidd. I even rooted for the Bucks this year when they played the Bulls even though I live in Chicago.”
Q; For West Wisconsin Avenue, there are more people moving there. What can be done next?
A: “One thing they could do, where they have the surface parking lot near the convention center (at Fourth Street and Wisconsin Avenue), divide it into smaller parcels and sell them off and let smaller developers develop it. The idea of getting something big there, I went through that. It was empty when I was mayor and it was empty when I left.
“There were always schemes to subsidize somebody. Some hotel would come in if you gave them um-teen million or whatever. There’s something wrong with that attitude. It’s like your city is such a crappy place that you have to bribe people to be here. In 1997, that is when I really started to discourage the subsidy mentality.
“I think (Mayor Tom) Barrett did the right thing in getting Manpower. How do you not want to have a Fortune 500 company here? That has worked out really well.
“Just to load in subsidy on a piece of land that was paying taxes back in whatever it was, the 1980s when they cleared it. You had the Randolph Hotel, you had a movie theater, jewelry store, apartment buildings on part of the block. There were about six buildings there. Why didn’t they just leave it alone? If it were still there, it’d be valuable real estate. It would have been paying taxes all of these years. Now it’s empty.
“(Former Milwaukee city planning director) Peter Park and I did divide it into four parcels and then all of a sudden the hotel guy wanted to build on the whole thing.
“If you divided it into smaller lots I think it would go pretty quickly, and that is the problem of the scale of the west side. There is too much big scale. Too much block-size. The convention center, the auditorium arena, it’s like a ghetto for oversized buildings and it’s hard to have a place be exciting when it is all oversized buildings. Anything named “center” usually kills fun.
“You go on Water Street or you go on Old World Third Street, there is a detailed fabric. There is different things. You can buy a sausage. You can buy a box of chocolate. You can get drunk. You can go to Mader’s and eat bratwurst and sauerbraten.”