Public plaza planned at site of streetcar extension stop near convention center

Vel R. Phillips Plaza to include 3,000-square-foot retail space, garden and public art

Milwaukee officials on Tuesday unveiled plans for a public plaza for a site long eyed for development in the Westown neighborhood of downtown.

Vel R. Phillips Plaza would be located along West Wisconsin Avenue, between North Fifth Street and Vel R. Phillips Avenue. Plans for the 1-acre plaza include a stop along a proposed extension of the Hop streetcar as well as Milwaukee County’s proposed bus rapid-transit line. The plans also call for a 3,000-square-foot retail space that could be used as a cafe or beer garden, a manicured garden, an informational kiosk, public art and a flex space that could be used to host farmers markets, food trucks or other community events.

The Vel R. Phillips Plaza. (Rendering: The Kubala Washatko Architects Inc.)

The proposed plaza also sets aside more than 50,000 square feet of space at the site for future development, such as a hotel or residential housing.

“We felt this was a perfect spot to have a plaza to honor Vel Phillips, because this is in the heart of the city, it’s about connectivity, it’s all about a place where people can be, and Vel Phillips was all about people,” Mayor Tom Barrett said during a news conference this afternoon.

Plans for the public plaza were unveiled less than two weeks after the city detailed a $46.8 million spending plan that would allow the streetcar to be extended north from St. Paul Avenue along Fifth Street and Vel R. Phillips Avenue. This proposal also would fund preliminary planning work for future extensions in the Bronzeville and Walker’s Point neighborhoods.

Construction of the streetcar extension and public plaza is slated for completion prior to the Democratic National Convention in July 2020, which is being held in Milwaukee.

The Vel R. Phillips Plaza. (Rendering: The Kubala Washatko Architects Inc.)

Ald. Robert Bauman said the public plaza and possible further development at the site has been a long time coming. He said using a prime downtown block for surface parking, which is what it’s currently used for, is the “ultimate under-utilization of very valuable land,” and said it is not a good visual for people visiting Milwaukee who are staying at the Hilton hotel across Fifth Street or the Wisconsin Center across Wisconsin Avenue.

Officials pointed out that there is plenty of development activity happening around the site. Developments include the Bucks’ 30-acre Deer District, which is centered around the Fiserv Forum; the restoration of the Warner Grand Theatre by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra; HUB640, the redeveloped office building that was the headquarters of Bon-Ton Stores Inc.; and The Avenue, the former Shops of Grand Avenue mall that’s being redeveloped into a mixed-use center that will include office space, a food hall and apartments.

The city has for some time sought development proposals for the site through a request for proposals. Rocky Marcoux, commissioner of the city’s Department of City Development, said when the RFP was first issued it included just a general idea of the planned public plaza space.

“We’re going to substitute (those plans) for this piece,” Marcoux said. “That gives you a very definitive build-to line. And now with this being public that we’re moving the streetcar forward, we’re pretty confident that we’re going to get some responses now to the RFP.”

So far, the city has received at least two proposals from developers for this site. Both called for adding a significant number of hotel rooms, but both projects also required an expansion of the convention center. The owner of the convention center, the Wisconsin Center District, is currently looking at ways it could finance such an expansion, which could cost up to $290 million.

The proposed public plaza would get $5 million through tax incremental financing, specifically from an amendment to the city’s existing Park East tax financing district. According to a city report, the funding for the construction of the public plaza would include a pavilion, utilities, lighting, trees and landscaping, public art, plaza furniture, bike amenities and other related costs.

The Vel R. Phillips Plaza site plan. (The Kubala Washatko Architects Inc.)

The Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee is scheduled to consider the city financing plan on Thursday, at which time it will also consider amendments to various other tax financing districts related to the streetcar-expansion spending plan.

Tony Janowiec, president of Interstate Development Partners and one of the developers of The Avenue project, said the added public plaza will make the entire area more pedestrian friendly and will mesh well with what his group is doing at The Avenue.

“For us, it’s a fantastic public investment in a space that’s meant to be used by an entire community, adjacent to a project that we view as the community’s living room at the 3rd Street Market Hall,” Janowiec said, referring to The Avenue’s planned food hall. “The planning and coordination for all of Westown is just so interconnected right now, and things are going seamlessly.”

Milwaukee officials on Tuesday unveiled plans for a public plaza for a site long eyed for development in the Westown neighborhood of downtown.

Vel R. Phillips Plaza would be located along West Wisconsin Avenue, between North Fifth Street and Vel R. Phillips Avenue. Plans for the 1-acre plaza include a stop along a proposed extension of the Hop streetcar as well as Milwaukee County’s proposed bus rapid-transit line. The plans also call for a 3,000-square-foot retail space that could be used as a cafe or beer garden, a manicured garden, an informational kiosk, public art and a flex space that could be used to host farmers markets, food trucks or other community events.

The Vel R. Phillips Plaza. (Rendering: The Kubala Washatko Architects Inc.)

The proposed plaza also sets aside more than 50,000 square feet of space at the site for future development, such as a hotel or residential housing.

“We felt this was a perfect spot to have a plaza to honor Vel Phillips, because this is in the heart of the city, it’s about connectivity, it’s all about a place where people can be, and Vel Phillips was all about people,” Mayor Tom Barrett said during a news conference this afternoon.

Plans for the public plaza were unveiled less than two weeks after the city detailed a $46.8 million spending plan that would allow the streetcar to be extended north from St. Paul Avenue along Fifth Street and Vel R. Phillips Avenue. This proposal also would fund preliminary planning work for future extensions in the Bronzeville and Walker’s Point neighborhoods.

Construction of the streetcar extension and public plaza is slated for completion prior to the Democratic National Convention in July 2020, which is being held in Milwaukee.

The Vel R. Phillips Plaza. (Rendering: The Kubala Washatko Architects Inc.)

Ald. Robert Bauman said the public plaza and possible further development at the site has been a long time coming. He said using a prime downtown block for surface parking, which is what it’s currently used for, is the “ultimate under-utilization of very valuable land,” and said it is not a good visual for people visiting Milwaukee who are staying at the Hilton hotel across Fifth Street or the Wisconsin Center across Wisconsin Avenue.

Officials pointed out that there is plenty of development activity happening around the site. Developments include the Bucks’ 30-acre Deer District, which is centered around the Fiserv Forum; the restoration of the Warner Grand Theatre by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra; HUB640, the redeveloped office building that was the headquarters of Bon-Ton Stores Inc.; and The Avenue, the former Shops of Grand Avenue mall that’s being redeveloped into a mixed-use center that will include office space, a food hall and apartments.

The city has for some time sought development proposals for the site through a request for proposals. Rocky Marcoux, commissioner of the city’s Department of City Development, said when the RFP was first issued it included just a general idea of the planned public plaza space.

“We’re going to substitute (those plans) for this piece,” Marcoux said. “That gives you a very definitive build-to line. And now with this being public that we’re moving the streetcar forward, we’re pretty confident that we’re going to get some responses now to the RFP.”

So far, the city has received at least two proposals from developers for this site. Both called for adding a significant number of hotel rooms, but both projects also required an expansion of the convention center. The owner of the convention center, the Wisconsin Center District, is currently looking at ways it could finance such an expansion, which could cost up to $290 million.

The proposed public plaza would get $5 million through tax incremental financing, specifically from an amendment to the city’s existing Park East tax financing district. According to a city report, the funding for the construction of the public plaza would include a pavilion, utilities, lighting, trees and landscaping, public art, plaza furniture, bike amenities and other related costs.

The Vel R. Phillips Plaza site plan. (The Kubala Washatko Architects Inc.)

The Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee is scheduled to consider the city financing plan on Thursday, at which time it will also consider amendments to various other tax financing districts related to the streetcar-expansion spending plan.

Tony Janowiec, president of Interstate Development Partners and one of the developers of The Avenue project, said the added public plaza will make the entire area more pedestrian friendly and will mesh well with what his group is doing at The Avenue.

“For us, it’s a fantastic public investment in a space that’s meant to be used by an entire community, adjacent to a project that we view as the community’s living room at the 3rd Street Market Hall,” Janowiec said, referring to The Avenue’s planned food hall. “The planning and coordination for all of Westown is just so interconnected right now, and things are going seamlessly.”

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