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1902 N. Commerce St., #105
Milwaukee, WI 53212
(414) 659-4411
Jean M. Stefaniak

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Source: New Urban News
Covering Design & Development of Human Scale Neighborhoods
Volume 12
July/August 2006


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 Allison Rozek.

“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.

The Edge at night

The Edge Condominiums will be the newest addition to the successful Beerline Neighborhood and will contribute to the modern aesthetic. This two-phase 133 unit project, located at 1890 Commerce Street, will feature clean lines, walls of glass, and large open spaces, including a new public plaza, riverfront park, and over 500’ of new Riverwalk. Best of all, this contemporary project is priced within reach with units ranging from the low $180’s to the $330’s. The Edge will be breaking ground this spring and pre-construction pricing is still available. For more information, contact. Roberta VanDuyse 414-263-EDGE or visit the sales center on site at 1890 N. Commerce Street.