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The Development of The Beerline Corridor
Source: Urban News
Under John Norquist, mayor for 15 years, Milwaukee started in about 1998 to plan the redevelopment
of Beerline B, a corridor that took its name from an old rail line north of downtown that had served
an assortment of breweries and other industries. The city controlled most of the 20 acres in
the corridor, and acted as agent for other public agencies that held title to the rest of the land,
says former planning director Peter Park, who now heads community planning and development for Denver.
“We hired Dan Solomon and Jon Ellis [of Solomon/WRT in San Francisco] to work on neighborhood
charrettes to design a new neighborhood, setting the stage for private investment,” Park says. Taking
the lead for the municipality was the Department of City Development, which encompasses planning,
permitting, economic development, the public housing authority, and city-owned real estate.
Many streets in the corridor had dead ends; the city decided to link them together where possible,
connecting the formerly industrial lowland along the Milwaukee River to the bluffs of Brewers Hill,
where old mansions stood. Regrading and new trails and staircases also helped overcome the separation
between the neighborhood on the bluffs and the development envisioned below.
“We wrote a simple form-based code, setting four building types, “says Park. The
redevelopment plan “aimed to achieve good-quality pedestrian connections, build out the street-wall,
and put in side streets for access to the river,” notes senior economic development specialist
“Having the plan prepared with the community created a degree of certainty for developers.” Park
observes. “We sent out RFPs in parcels as small as we could [often under two acres], to
encourage multiple developers.” Height restrictions were included in the planning, to preserve
views and build predominantly outward rather than upward, thus creating consistent street-walls and
preventing a situation in which one tall building might saturate the market.
Guided by the code, developers produced their own take on what would be appropriate. Among
the proposals winning approval-the city awarded sites through developer competitions-were condominium
townhouses, stacked flats, and side-by-side duplexes designed to look like mansions. The competitions “raised
the bar,” says John Vetter of the architecture and development firm Vetter Denk. “You
had to win them. It brought a high level of design to a market that was starving for it.”
Some of the first projects adopted a traditional aesthetic, but today “if there is a dominant
style, it would be modernism,” says Larry Witzling, president of Planning and Design Institute
(PDI), which worked with Vetter Denk of River Homes, 42 contemporary units on both sides of the new,
contemporary Milwaukee Rowing club. Modern design, with many different permutations, seems
to have found an enthusiastic audience. “People are looking for something different from
the suburbs,” says Brian Peterson, a PDI principal who lives in Beerline amid empty-nesters,
young couples, and people in other stages of life.
Private investment has poured in –more than $200 million since 1999. Over 1,000 residential
units have been built or approved. The city has encouraged reclamation of this former Brownfield
corridor by spending about $25 million in tax-increment finance funds on infrastructure, including
construction of the Marsupial Bridge that carries motor vehicles on its upper level and pedestrians
below, crossing the river. Restaurants and other retail, mainly aimed at neighborhood residents,
have started to arrive, and prices have shot up. “There’s housing from $140,000
to $1.5 million,” says Vetter.
Some of the buildings required inventive techniques to deal with slopes or other challenges. “Because
of the Brownfield condition, the buildings at River Homes are about four feet above grade,” Peterson
says, noting that they have attractive stairways, steel railings, and views.
The Park Terrace rowhouses, by Vetter Denk, act as retaining walls against the bluff; they have what
Park describes as “great street presence” where they front on the street. On top
of two floors of living quarters are a garage and multi-purpose room, at the same level as a rear
alley. Across the alley are detached houses. In Beerline, “There are some garage
doors on the ‘street,’ but they look good, and because they are infrequent they are acceptable
as a different type of character for a block or two,” Witzling says.
The development is now mostly
complete, and in “Park’s opinion, “It has the potential
to mature into an interesting urban neighborhood.” Designers, developers, and city officials says
the multi-developer approach and the code has paid off. ‘My sense,” says Park, “is
that the development happened faster than if we had a single master developer. It created competition. In
terms of product, we pushed innovative design, which gave it a competitive edge.
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