MILWAUKEE — It’d be hard to find a better Brewtown tour guide than Rocky Marcoux.
Behind the wheel of a modest sedan, Milwaukee’s amiable and animated city development commissioner riffs – note free — on the city’s rich history, development controversies like the streetcar and Park East, the transformation of brownfields, and his vision for a modern city worth visiting and calling home. All along he gives shoutouts to developers, government partners and institutions that have helped the developments succeed.
“If the city doesn’t have vision how could you expect anybody else to?’’ the Marquette University grad said as Summerfest entered its first weekend and Milwaukee showed off its sometimes foggy lakefront to tens of thousands of music lovers.
A decade into his job, Marcoux has an operating premise when it comes to growing the city’s tax base and jobs through development. “There’s 99 square miles in this city. We’re not going to fill in Lake Michigan, and we can’t annex any of our neighbors. That 99 square miles is what we have to operate with, which means we can’t deem any piece of land in this city as non-developable.’’
That means replicating successes like the Beer Line and the Menomonee River Valley in places such as the abandoned 160-acre Tower Automotive site, transforming brownfields into greenfields. The opportunity is infill.
“That’s why I’m so bullish on development in the city …We have a lot more land like this,’’Marcoux says, noting a key goal contained in an economic growth plan unveiled on July 10. LINK “One of the things we’re going to commit to…we did 500 (acres) in the last decade. We want to do 500 (acres) more in the next decade.”
A two-hour tour took in most but not all of Milwaukee’s development hotspots. But it was long enough for Marcoux to summarize development progress and evangelize about a vision for urban living and smart planning he hopes will appeal to educated Millenials. A key part of the vision is the much-maligned streetcar project.
“We captured (some of) that demographic. Now we need to capture more. They want an integrated transportation network’’ that includes more biking and walking and less driving, Maroux says.
He says Milwaukee is the 15th densest city in the United States and “the 14 in front of us all have some form of fixed rail.’’
“The city of Milwaukee was built on a streetcar network. There’s 65 commercial corridors in the city of Milwaukee. Almost all of them at one time were serviced by streetcars …so the bones are there,’’ he says. “The argument that buses can do the same thing is erroneous. What buses won’t do is telegraph development for the private sector.’’ Development along a streetcar line has credibility because “there’s permanence and certitude with a streetcar network’’ that you don’t get with a bus line.
“And so if I’m a banker and I’ve got a choice between a streetcar service development and non-streetcar service development, I’m going to go with the streetcar service development. Because I think my investment is going to be protected over time. The reason being, even though we did disassemble an entire network, if we rebuild that network, we’re not going to disassemble it. …. A bus line can be changed by a political decision made at any point in time.’’
A streetcar system also will increase parking and increase parking efficiency, Marcoux says, claiming it will mean the construction of bigger parking structures.
Unlike the suburbs, “you can’t just put 1,000 cars on … develop-able land. We have to use a structure. But structures are very very, very expensive,’’ he says “With a streetcar network, what you can do, is build bigger parking structures much farther apart. The bigger the structure the more efficient it is. …So by building significant parking assets along the streetcar route, you can build them much farther apart and do a park-once concept. ‘’
Critics, he says emphatically, are focused on the starter project, not the system and the long-term development benefits.
“This network I just described is a much bigger network than we’re talking about right now. … It’s not a toy. It’s a starter system. You’ve got to start somewhere, right? We are absolutely convinced that the debate changes once the initial starter system opens up changes from how do you stop this thing to why isn’t it going to my neighborhood next … That’s what’s going to happen. We know that’s going to happen, because it’s happened in every other city.’’
Another of Marcoux’s lessons: quality development takes time. While he acknowledges problems with the early Park East development, he sees the finish line.
“You don’t tear down a freeway, spread some seeds and see immediate sprouts,’’ he says. “The mistake that was made was there wasn’t enough emphasis placed on the fact that that was a 15- to 20-year build-out. …that doesn’t happen overnight. You have to build confidence in the marketplace.’’
He cites these factors that are giving him confidence the Park East will fill in within the next decade: $25 million invested in roads, sewer and water; a new joint marketing effort with input from city, county and developers that advertises all the remaining land in one request for proposal (first submissions in August); and the successes of the 30-story Moderne apartment high rise and the rehabbing of buildings in the old Pabst Brewery complex.
The success of the Moderne and Pabst Brewery developments “gives confidence to the property we’re marketing right now.’’
He acknowledges initial efforts were “probably trying to push it too fast.’’
Adds Marcoux: “There was a lot of pressure publicly, particularly from people who were critical of the freeway coming down saying that nothing would ever happen there. There was an artificial tension created there to move faster than the market could absorb. … Where the city has been successful is making sure private development has the opportunity to succeed. That’s the appropriate role for government — to set the table. … go where the private sector won’t go or can’t.’’
Come along for more of Rocky’s windshield tour. Click the title of each section to listen to Marcoux’s narration of the tour.
Starting on Water Street near the Marcus Amphitheater, he hails MSOE, which is going to use one former extended stay hotel project — “the only major building that didn’t finish during the recession” – as a dorm. “When things got tough in the downtown, they didn’t put on wheels and move …during the ’60s and ’70s. They expanded.’’
He notes the area was once proposed as a site for a high-security prison. Now it’s full of residential housing that sits along the Riverwalk just down river from an environmental corridor re-created after the fall of the old North Avenue dam.
Critics said the area was deemed “unworkable, non develop-able, non recoverable,’’ says Marcoux. “The city of Milwaukee basically proved those assumptions to be absolutely incorrect.’’
“We’ve struck the right formula this time,’’ he declares.
“If you can’t get a return on investment, it isn’t developable. What we had to do as a city is how we could get a return on investment here with the private sector development.’’ Enter the Beer Line plane and investment in infrastructure like the Riverwalk, enhancing “connectivity’’ to downtown and Brady Street for pedestrians, bicyclists, rowers, and boaters.
“Then we got the hell out of the way and let the private sector do what it does best – maximize a return on investment.’’
Adds Marcoux: “You couldn’t have dreamed this 30 years ago. This was no-man’s land. … The only thing along the river … was probably the Harp Bar … and from the deck of the Harp, you could see flotsam and jetsam and smell the fragrance of the river, because we were still polluting at that time.’’
“We were never concerned about east of the river. … There was a synergy there. The larger challenge was what do you do west of the river? I think there have been a number of significant things that have helped. The biggest single thing that has helped, clearly, is the redevelopment of the Pabst Brewery,’’ he says. “It’s not happening all at once, because development doesn’t happen all at once. …You have to develop a value proposition …You have to have a number of buildings that have started, then you start adding density to that.’’
He also credits the Moderne. “The Moderne brought housing on the west bank of the river, where people felt … (it) was not going to work. …You know what? Not only is it working, it’s flourishing. …That was a controversial project at the time because the city actually did a loan into the Moderne.’’
The Moderne spurs other residential development. He calls it “a beacon that says, `Hey maybe you should be developing right next to me.’’’
Once “the largest contiguous brownfield in the state,’’ Marcoux now hails the valley as a model for converting other similar sites into places for work and play. He credits the cooperation of the state and the Potawatomi and employers such as Palermo’s.
The new tribal hotel will add to the entertainment attractions. The Hank Aaron Trail, running near a “storm water park’’ in full bloom, will go from Lake Michigan to Waukesha County when the Zoo Interchange is completed. And companies providing entry-level and professional work continue to expand.
“If you’re not making something, ultimately what you’re doing is just washing each other’s socks,’’ Marcoux says, remembering when things were just getting started
“People just threw up their hands. Said nothing could be done. The private sector said are you crazy? Nothing will ever work there … When I became commissioner in 2004 is exactly the point this became dirt. In 2004 this is when we finished the demolition. The environmental remediation was still in progress. Canal Street had not yet been extended…. I said no to a dozen developers in terms of spec buildings …We had big box retail they wanted to put down here. Truck terminals. None of which met the plan. None of which made sense for the investment we were making. … We wanted to get 22 jobs per acre. We’ve exceeded that goal now’’
“The model is the valley,’’ Marcoux says.
Marcoux talks about extending Lincoln Memorial Drive south, creating a new intersection in the Third Ward, enhancing Kilbourn Avenue and providing better pedestrian access to the lakefront.
“There’s always been a disconnect between the central business district and the glorious lakefront, particularly from a pedestrian standpoint,’’ he says, noting the 30-foot rise from the edge of the lake. “This is 25 years of development right here, and the reason we seized on it now is because the state is rebuilding this portion of the Hoan (Bridge) and the approaches…. Instead of this looking like the loading dock of the city, it looks like the front door. That’s why we’re calling it the gateway.’’
— By WisBusiness.com staff