Upland Stories

Posted: April 7, 2016 in Uncategorized

Hey you guys, guess where I was today?

IMG_2641 IMG_2643


We were again invited to the School of Architecture for a one-day Charrette.  The subject area this time was Near West Side, which covers the area from the Interstate on the south to Vliet street north, from the Interstate on the east to the Miller Brewery/ Harley plants on the west.  It covers a lot of ground, and the residents are ethnically and economically pretty much the most diverse in the city.  But it does suffer from a lack of ‘sense of place’ and some ill-thought out demolition and a lot of gaps in the urban fabric.

The City and the School team up for these to bring together architects, planners, neighborhood groups, politicians and residents, bankers and developers, brokers and property owners to collaborate on ‘big idea’ design concepts for areas that have been selected as crucial development nodes.  They is the sixth charrette, and we have been invited to five of them.  The Commissioner of Development said that of all the previous ones, at least a dozen projects have moved into active development phase.  They use the results of this process as data to provide potential developers and investors solid evidence of the potential development opportunities, and show the support or residents and other stakeholders.  It has proven to be an effective and crucial first (or maybe third) step in the process, giving a running start.

WARNING:  ARCHITECT-SPLAINING AHEAD.   Our experience with our site was curious; it was presented to us as a combination new construction/renovation site with a number of adaptive reuse buildings.  The adaptive reuse buildings are the multiple, odd-shaped collection in the middle of the aerial above. They look kind of decrepit, run down, and unoccupied.  However, when we toured the buildings we discovered that they are pretty much fully occupied by viable maker-space businesses.  A multi-generational auto repair shop, a guy that makes fairings for motorcycles, a cobbler (!), a guy that sells custom bicycles, a guy that fabricates transmissions for collector cars (Shelby Mustangs!  He is charging many Ameros…). A log-furniture fabricator.

So we changed our attitude;  there was no reason to change the use of these buildings for the time being; they are very nearly at full occupancy with viable, interesting productive businesses.

We saw two opportunities for new businesses; the little angled corner building in front of the Automotive shop, and the small commercial building across the street.  What we DID decide to  change was the plan for these spaces; the smaller building could be a nice boutique if there was a bit of parking. and the building across the street has limited space, but is prominently located, so we feel that it would be a great destination restaurant.  There are several examples in Milwaukee already, but the cost to convert the building will be significant.

What is really necessary is creating an upgraded image to the intersection;  the road to the right leads down to the Miller Brewery, and the street going up and down is a major arterial.  The existing buildings need much exterior work, and a bit of owner buy-in.  But mainly, the project became a major public right-of-way streetscaping project.  I was excited, because I haven’t done a decent streetscaping project since the Third Ward!

So we proposed several things:

  • Traffic calming, limiting lanes and creating eliminating dedicated turn lanes.
  • Accentuate pedestrian links through accented crosswalk paving, pedestrian scale lighting,  shortened crosswalks and corner bump-outs…
  • Improvements at the existing buildings, with screening along the parking, improved signage, new fenestration, exterior improvements.  Relocation of Automotive parking to the alley side, which has the effect of increasing the number of available spaces, and including parking sharing.
  • New bike lanes (there are 29,000 people working in the area; 40,000 people living here.  Milwaukee has become one of the most bike-friendly  cities in the country, and it needs to be expanded out of the downtown and east Side areas.
  • The odd shaped island in the middle will become a hard-scaled urban plaza with public art and district ID elements, like a fountain, an obelisk, urban-style landscaping.
  • The space directly below that will become an active park, with built in amenities, perhaps an art-style bus stop and activity-encouraging installations.  Chessboard paving?
  • there is currently a standard billboard above the odd shaped building at the corner.  We would upgrade that with a modern digital screen billboard, that is re-shaped to face east directly toward State Street, and angled down toward 35th Street.  This can be programmed with commercial advertising (which is rent for the building owner) and PSAs for the Near West Side organization; in addition, video/graphic art can be programmed in-this intersection is controlled, so you have captive eyeballs in the street.  Which leads to the next element…
  • Computer coordination with lighting, LED and color changing elements in the public streetscaping portions of the project, creating an immersive environment for pedestrians, bikers, and vehicular traffic at the same time.  I don’t wan’t to say Disney, but…Disney.
  • Also, we accented an urban artifact, in that the existing building had the remains of a dust collector system, a remnant of the 4 generation cabinet business A.J. Pietsch that was there (there is still a medallion at the top of one of the buildings)  We want to highlight that by painting it brightly (with lights?  see above) and we also want to create a formal gateway arch leading down to Miller Valley (see the link above the Third Ward arches, guess who designed them just guess); in an industrial aesthetic, and yes, with lights (look, no matter where you are, it is dark roughly half of the time).

Our work was really, really well received.  The director or the NWSP, Keith, came by with much input and much approval.  In particular, our decisions to support and accentuate the existing businesses was applauded.

Hey!  The Mayor was there!  He stopped by our workspace, and I got the opportunity to tell him what we were doing, and convey our enthusiasm for this project and this process.  Remember, I tell myself, to not give MANLY handshake, as his flipper is sub-optimal.  He loves these things, and this is a neighborhood he lives in and went to high school.  Also, he just won re-election with 70% of the vote.  He’s a Good Guy, I’m saying.

During the course of the charrette, I spent much time talking to people from the neighborhood, Dean of the School, developers, other architects, residents, people who like what we were doing, curious onlookers, reporters from news services…upshot is that where in previous charrettes, I had taken the lead in design and presentation, in this case I let my colleagues, Cassandra and Gloribed, lead the charge in design and presentation.  They were reluctant, but I insisted….

Funny thing.  In previous, better times, I tried to hire Cassandra three different times, and she turned me down every time.  Gloribed is from Puerto Rico, and when Young Zombie would come into the office, i told her she had to talk to him in Spanish.  Even prior to that, I had an office that usually was at least 50-50, if not more on the less male side.  At one point, when I was talking to Wife Sublime about the difficulties faced by women in male-dominated fields apropos of STEM (to which, as a woman in a STEM field, she usually admits to being a bit oblivious) that in my field, I somehow tend toward hiring women, she replied “I. KNOW.”

These days, I would reply, so sue me.  What do you want, me to be a misogynist like Donald Trump?”

It amounted to a great day, I had what amounts to a day off – although I did the aerial sketch above, and had much fun doing it.  But sweet living fuck, my drawing skills have atrophied.- Heard from me to the Dean of SARUP:  Look, Bob, I can still draw! which led to a discussion that they have had to incorporate required classes in hand drawing in the curriculum.  But if you follow the link above, SARUP has become a worldwide known schools of architecture, and our graduates have done work and won awards around the globe.  And locally, many of those people have stayed here, and the design environment is rich with talent.  And maybe more zombies than most would expect.  But that was reflected in these charrettes, and the responses they have generated, not to mention the work inspired and economic impact that has resulted.  As an outgrowth of the Wisconsin Idea (trying to be destroyed by TurdFucking Waffle)(Also Bob Lafollete has impressive Morrisey hair) it has married the university to real-world solutions to the city we live in, and the results have been nearly immediate and visible.  It is a community in several different ways, and it is invigorating to be a part of it…

I will echo what one of my colleagues said during his presentation, and say that I have been privileged and honored to be one of the ‘old-timers’ at these things. I run a small firm, but we have big ideas and we like to bust the sides of the box wide open.  This week, I will be finishing up a (weirdly sizable and kind of cool) garage addition for a client, and starting on a small apartment roof conversion from flat to pitched.  At the same time, we are converting a building, when it was built in 1858 was the largest hardware store in the west, to apartments.  I like solving problems, and when I can do it artfully, THAT’S when I am fulfilling the dream of what I wanted to do when I started this long twisted painful path.

I do feel the need to add.  The Commissioner of City Development spent much time talking to me about our ideas, and during the final presentations, I just straight-up went full suckup and sat next to him in the front row.  When the presentations lagged, we talked about our work for the day, and after the whole thing was over, he pigeonholed me to talk about whether I was willing to work with him on the next steps with the building owners.  Was I!  It was the first time I had ever had positive follow up THE SAME DAMN DAY and it was on a tremendously fun project.  And although it involves nearly all public funding (it’s own set of hurdles)(although in Koch Wisconsin, the Democrat-run cities of Madison and Milwaukee are significantly out-performing the rest of the state economically) Rocky said, “this is a project that can be done very quickly” 


  1. Mikey Hemlok says:

    They just finished a similar project for the Burlingame Avenue district – about a block from my apt.It’s all very nice shoppes, boutiques and restaurants now, and very walkable…


    • nice. But streetscaping has to be based on clear goals, not as a silver bullet. Looks like the downtown area is viable in its own right, especially if well served by transit and if it includes living and work spaces mixed in.

      But just a bit of clarification; the charrette was hardly a’project’. Rather it was kind of the beginning of the beginning of the nuclear of several projects; the intent is to focus on the most bang for the buck with the first few projects, until the district manages to achieve some momentum of its own.

      Although our site morphed into a public realm project, it really involved much less streetscaping than you see in the Burl. But it does have a bit; more importantly, it changes the thinking about this intersection, changes the focus, and becomes a branding/identification/urban planning project, with some streetscaping elements and a couple of small but high-impact development projects.

      Sent ’em an invoice for our stipend today…

  2. Neat project(s).

    Corvallis did “corner bump-outs” throughout downtown quite a while back, and while the downtown area was already quite vibrant, those really helped with the overall feel of the place. Doesn’t even really feel like a state highway runs right through the heart of downtown any more.

Go ahead, tell me how I fucked up this time.

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