While the Milwaukee Bucks arena features many problematic elements in terms of its financing and potential maintenance for the State, City, and County, the public has focused less on the design elements of the arena and the ancillary $500 million development. One of the purported benefits of the arena project is that it will be coupled with more than a decade of complementary residential and commercial developments, which should ostensibly crate a vibrant downtown and spur “economic growth.” In contrast to the optimism associated with the design (the general response of “this looks amazing”), the design elements can be used to criticize the notion of growth and the uses of the land associated with the arena and development.

First and foremost, it is crucial in this situation to equate “economic growth” with the elite interests of the Bucks ownership group, who stand to be the biggest winners in this affair. Not only are they receiving public subsidy for their operating expenses, which should allow them to maximize their use of arena and television revenues, they are receiving extraordinary discounts on adjacent land for the purposes of development. “Economic growth,” in this sense, starts with the elite interests represented by a multibillion dollar entertainment group, but it does not necessarily extend to the public. One can approach the design through at least two different lenses to emphasize this elite variety of “economic growth.”

Anti-Public Elements of Design:

Imagine the park east corridor, the land immediately north of the Bradley Center. In one sense, the land is little more than blight, an empty stretch of underdeveloped land that serves as a buffer between a Municipal Ghetto and a near-north, center city neighborhood. In another sense, the land is full of potential to open the downtown commerce neighborhood to diverse residents and functions. The arena and development strictly forbids the second potential, and doubles down on the Municipal Ghetto (while removing the blight).

The Municipal Ghetto is comprised of the Bradley Center, Mecca/UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena, Milwaukee Theatre, Wisconsin Center District, museums, and Milwaukee Area Technical College (not to mention the Courthouse, Jail, and Interstate-43 immediately to the west). This area of the city is already extremely fortified by large institutions, even before including Marquette University and Aurora Sinai Medical Center (“on” I-43), which leads one to question its desirability for the type of fortified, high-density housing and commercial real estate that is planned for the area.

A “Ghetto” is defined not merely by homogenous populations or functions, but also by “lack of access”: a Ghetto lacks mobility or escape, which essentially creates imprisoned spaces on a city’s grid. This is why I use the term “Municipal Ghetto”: it is not meant to be merely a “shock value” term, but a term that captures the lack of freedom incorporated in that immediate, center downtown area. Streets are large and dangerous for pedestrians, and when they calm down, the high-density surroundings of the Wisconsin Center, Arena and Theatre, and Bradley Center dominate the pedestrian. The pedestrian therefore walks from function-to-function, rather than stopping or meandering to explore the street and its attractions.

There is no invitation to the area, and moreover, its highly specialized function automatically excludes a large portion of Milwaukee’s population. Many area residents may simply use the area for a “bus hub” around 12th Street, or pass through to the Intermodal Station, or to work. Furthermore, the homogeneity of “function” immediately closes off the area to curiosity and accidental exploration: no one simply stumbles into a National Basketball Association game or 18,000 ticket headlining concert. Any purported benefits of having restaurants or auxiliary entertainment in the area will be capped by the immediate and necessarily-massive zoning purposes for the area. That the events staged at the arena are ticketed is another extreme barrier to public use.

One of the surprises of recent discussions of the ancillary development is the lack of Mixed-Income Housing, or Low-Income Housing proposals. In a segregated city like Milwaukee, there is little-to-no opportunity that individuals from different classes will converge in the same area, save for well-defined roles (such as “NBA ticket holder” and “service employee”). According to the most recent U.S. Census figures, 29% of Milwaukee residents live below the poverty level, and the median household income itself is $35,467 (nearly 20% lower than the Milwaukee County median household income). Without housing options for the wealthy, middle class, and poor, the downtown development will continue to serve as a closed space for an elite portion of the population.

“Economic growth” needs to be scrutinized here: if a large portion of Milwaukee residents not only cannot afford to attend events at this arena, and cannot afford housing opportunities provided in this central district, one must wonder whether the “growth” produced by the new development will be equitable for the City and County. This is not a political question, but a necessary question, given the massive sums of money that all Milwaukee residents will contribute to this area.

Closed Design:

If you have not thought about urban design, I highly recommend Jane Jacobs’s “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Published over 50 years ago, Jacobs vehemently criticized “orthodox” schools of urban design of the time, designers who famously poured their aesthetic into disastrous Public Housing Projects (among other types of buildings). One of the central items of criticism was the “Skyscraper in the Park,” a design entity that was supposed to be pleasant and orderly and remove city residents from the unadulterated chaos of the streets. The solution to the city’s problems were supposed to emerge when its residents were moved from the unpredictable housing of slums to the well-designed and “perfect equality” of the skyscraper.

Jacobs writes brilliantly about the role of sidewalks, diversity of function, diversity of building age, among many other topics, in her book. One gets the sense that a city can be a series of accidental encounters and anonymous exploration by residents that move through neighborhoods for any number of reasons.

If these items seem trivial, they are not: consider the recent UWM Design items for the arena’s development, or even the Milwaukee Bucks’ renditions of the arena and adjacent land: you will not find vibrant streets. You will not find diversity of function. You will not find residences dispersed proportionately to green area and streetlife, or old buildings alongside the new: you will find high-density skyscrapers placed amidst wide open spaces (for the purpose of entertainment alongside the arena).

The “open space” (“Entertainment Plaza” / “Game Day Plaza”) associated with the arena is one of the most dangerous elements of the arena plan and its development. To understand why, consider an alternative proposal: imagine that the Bucks owners, furious with Milwaukee, decided to build their arena in Waukesha County, closer to their fanbase and preying on the recent trend of suburbs offering lucrative land to sports teams (google: “Schamburg Cubs,” or “Atlanta Braves Suburban Stadium”). Or, they built it adjacent to Miller Park. Or, they chose a different site in the city (perhaps among the warehouses that sit just outside of the Third Ward).

Free of the need for such a grand $1 billion public plan, the City instead finances wide open spaces and parkland on the Park East. Nothing more, nothing less: bike lanes, baseball diamonds and tennis courts, you name it. Beautiful, open park space, on 10 acres of open land.

With free, open space, the City of Milwaukee would find one sheerly equitable solution to its problem of Park East blight. Any and all residents could converge on the park, and center city residents would have a beautiful space on which to converge for no reason at all. The space would be economically diverse, with poor residents sprinkled among Marquette students and lunchers from downtown firms. You might scoff, but if you do, I’d ask that you apply your skepticism to the beautiful prose afforded the Bucks arena: for a much smaller amount of money, the City could develop land in a way that is completely free and open for its residents: one of the least controversial ways to spend public money, I gather.

Of course, other forms of diversity could be sprinkled around the arena, if the project is going forward: mixed income row houses could line public squares, and instead of a large, open “Gameday Entertainment” plaza, the development could include a series of smaller parks that line both row houses and the arena. If commercial development is also desired, some of the small flats in the row houses could be saved for commercial uses, and small business owners could take their place among the mixed income residents and game day patrons of the arena. Alongside the Bucks headquarters, an amateur fieldhouse could provide neighborhood residents with basketball courts and fitness equipment for their own use.

These examples showcase only two potential uses for the land on the Park East corridor. Even with these examples, one should be able to see the contrast between a “Game Day Plaza” and free, open space for the public. Coupled with elite high-rise residential units, hotels, and commercial development, a set of skyscrapers in the park will further exclude area residents from the arena and development. Essentially, Milwaukee is creating Public Projects for the elite population that can afford to work and/or play downtown. There will probably not be as much visible blight or crime associated with such a development, but city residents should not refrain from questioning the necessity of creating this type of dense housing.

Suburbanization:

Basically, the Bucks Arena proposal and its development proceed on the assumptions of “suburbanization”: arena workers, service workers at residential towers, and lower income professionals hired in the commercial developments will commute from elsewhere in the city to work in the Park East corridor. The grand promise of “walkability” and the benefits of “living where you work and play” will be afforded to the elite residents of Milwaukee: sports fans that can afford to attend games, and employees at downtown firms.

One can toss aside the economic arguments and still find great reasons to oppose the Bucks Arena. First and foremost, its basic location is problematic without any ancillary development. Adding that development into the equation, and the Bucks Arena plan essentially results in a public subsidy to a Municipal Ghetto that will be closed to a vast majority of the city (save for the chance to work in one of the buildings, without the benefit of living nearby). Poor residents that work at these buildings will need to spend a disproportionate percentage of their income on transit to enter the downtown area, which further diminishes their opportunity to use the arena development as a means for economic growth (compare that to mixed income housing that would allow spaces for arena employees and other service employees the chance to eliminate transit from their budget and live where they work).

(When combined with criticisms of the public financing plan, one can arguably call the Bucks arena and development a massive transfer of wealth from the public to an elite entertainment industry, for the purposes of further fortifying the chasm between the wealthy and poor residents of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County.)

Moreover, the Municipal Ghetto will now have walls constructed by skyscrapers on open spaces that are reserved for game day patrons. The district will be closed to anyone not interested in entertainment. Beyond economics, the City and the Bucks had a failure of imagination about what their city could become. There is no curiosity in the Bucks proposal. There is no accidental encounter, no diversity of function or form. For these reasons, one can stand as a grand critic of the Bucks arena and ancillary development.

Sources:

Kirchen, Ryan. “UWM urban design students envision development around Bucks arena: Slideshow.” May 13, 2015. Web.
Ryan, Sean. “Bucks owners’ $400M Park East plan reveals 300-room hotel on Bradley Center site.” Milwaukee Business Journal, June 2, 2015. Web.
United States Census Bureau. Last Revised April 22, 2015.
Wendt, Matthias. “The Importance of Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) by Jane Jacobs to the profession of Urban Planning.” New Visions for Public Affairs: I, Spring 2009. Web.