Three redevelopment notes from northside, downtown Milwaukee

Perusing Tom Daykin’s Land and Space blog tonight, these pieces caught my eye:

New King Drive apartment building, food market opening

Everest College wins approval for downtown campus;

New apartments opening at Grand Avenue’s Plankinton building

That is in reverse chronological order, but follow in geographical order, north to south. So let’s start at the top.

The first story seems the most significant to me, as it is about north side redevelopment. Milwaukee’s north side is home to a majority of its African-American population, and—sadly—much of its deepest poverty. The city has had multiple generations of deep poverty, which has to do with deindustrialization, a topic I’ve sometimes touched on. (The ethnic and racial segregation that was enforced in the 1950s and 60s is something that I have not talked about on here, but, suffice to say that African-Americans in Milwaukee were kept within the north side. It’s little surprise then that this same area suffered greatly from flooding in the great deluge we had in August 2010.)

The A. O. Smith auto parts plant on the north side had been a source of middle-class security for many north siders. Its closure was part of the wave that saw the slow transformation of Milwaukee from a manufacturing powerhouse to a city in search of jobs. Today, for many the phrase “north side Milwaukee” is synonymous with poverty and all that comes with it. That said, I know it’s changing, and the people that live there are trying to change it. The now world-famous urban farm Growing Power is located on the north side. And it’s no coincidence that Growing Power is a part of this story.

According to Tom Daykin’s story, a 24-unit apartment building has been built at 2719 N. Martin Luther King Drive. This building “includes a fresh food market in its street-level commercial space” that is operated by Growing Power. Cool! Will Allen has long talked about “food deserts,” areas within cities where there are no grocery stores for miles around. At best many corner stores sell little but booze, junk food, and cigarettes. Or drug paraphernalia. Fast food abounds, but little to nothing that’s healthy or sustaining. It’s a very real effect of long-term, deep poverty that gets less attention than it deserves.

Hopefully Growing Power’s store will help turn that around in this area. I did a Google search for “grocery” near 2719 N. Dr MLK Dr, and was not surprised with what turned up: lots of corner shops much like the ones I described above. Only one mentioned “VEG” in its window art; two said “MEAT.” More has signs for beer and cigarettes.  (The Riverwest Co-op is a notable exception to that.) I haven’t been to any of them, so I can’t say for sure what they do or do not have. But it’s safe to say that generally, farm-fresh produce is not available in central city locations like this. Again, I hope this is a good start to a change in that. (Teaching people how to eat better is something that I know Growing Power is also focused on.)

Also, looking at 2719 N. Dr MLK Dr. in Google Maps Street View shows an empty lot in a run-down looking area. Is this where the building was put in? Daykin didn’t specify, but this line suggests that it is new: “Martin Luther King Economic Development Corp., a non-profit developer, developed the three-story building, which was partly financed with federal affordable housing tax credits.” (I e-mailed Mr. Daykin to inquire about this.)

Update: Daykin wrote to me, “Built from the ground up. Completely new construction, no renovation or remodeling of existing building.” Thanks, Tom.

• • •

Slightly to the south and west is the intersection of W. McKinley Blvd. and N. 6th St. Again, in Teh Google, the land I think is being discussed appears to be another vacant, albeit paved lot. That will be the site of a national for-profit college’s downtown campus. I’ve got nothing to say about Everest College or even for-profit colleges. I just think it’s grand that this land is being used for something.

This land is adjacent to a section known as Park East, which was part of the massive swaths of freeway that tore all through Milwaukee. I-43 cut through the very heart of the black community on the north side, and the Polish community on the south side. I-794 destroyed much of the Little Italy we had in the Third Ward. I’m not sure what I-94 cut through as it skirts the northern edge of the Menominee River valley, though I wonder what the folks in West Allis thought of it coming through their town. So much of Milwaukee was razed in the 1960s to build the freeways. It almost matches the countless parking ramps in the downtown.

According to the Preservation Institute, “Park East was a one mile freeway spur, left over from a more ambitious plan to develop a ring of freeways around downtown Milwaukee.” In the way that a freeway was intended to make it possible for drivers to “connect” to the downtown from their suburban homes? That’s what came to be seen as happening. Again, from Preservation Institute:

“In 1972, Mayor Henry Maier killed the rest of the project by vetoing funds for relocating utilities in the corridor. Maier emphasized the cost to the city, saying: ‘America is the only nation in the world to let her cities ride to bankruptcy on a freeway . . . . My city has discovered that the freeway is not free.’ “

Between 1972 and 1998, a portion of Park East stood, but had little traffic on it. The part that remained undeveloped stayed that way for a full twenty years. Finally, Park East was demolished between June 2002 and April 2003. The portions of it that Milwaukee County has not been in charge of redeveloping have flourished with new mixed-use commercial spaces, and the city grid has been restored, making the flow of traffic and pedestrians much more natural.

So my point was that this land where the for-profit college is going in will be just north of the former Park East freeway land. Wow, all that just to say that? (Yes.)

• • •

Finally, there are new apartments opening at Grand Avenue’s Plankinton building. Wisconsin Avenue used to be called Grand Avenue, and it sported many great mansions built during Milwaukee’s rise as a booming port and industrial city in the 19th century. General Douglas MacArthur used to live at a hotel on Grand Avenue. And in more recent years, the Shops fo the Grand Avenue mall has had a painful decline. I remember in 1987, I went there for my first social gathering of computer geeks who had met via telecommunications—though at the time it through a chat BBS. (Can anyone tell me its name? I think it was somehow connected to MPS, but I could be mistaken. The Scoreboard and Wasteland Desert ][ were around at the time, along with the live adventure game BBS whose name also escapes me.)

Anyway, before my laptop’s battery dies after tolerating my unnecessary indulgence of prolixity—nothing a pair of scissors can’t fix!—a gradual conversion of some of the Grand Avenue mall space appears to be under way. As Daykin, who is paid not to do what I’ve done, wrote:

“With the Shops of Grand Avenue in the news lately, it’s worth noting that some new apartments recently opened in the mall’s Plankinton Arcade building.

Known as Plankinton Loft Apartments, the four new units are the result of old office space that was remodeled by developer Ken Breunig [whose investment group owns a portion of the mall’s Plankinton Arcade building]…”

Well, cool. With more and more people living downtown, I hope it comes a little more alive. It’s been looking better since I got back here in 2005, but more sure won’t hurt.

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Author: Jason Haas

Jason is an elected member of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors, occasionally moonlights as an amateur gardener, and is a proud father of two, or three, depending on how you do the math.