Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Valley of the Condos

River Homes at Beerline

I've heard all kinds of comments about the cornucopia of condominiums that has arisen along Commerce Street. Some people hate the modern designs. Some people hate the sort of people they believe must be moving into them. Some people point out the infamous construction flaws. Some people bemoan the loss of green space along the river.

Many of complaints have some validity. It's unfortunately easy to find concrete spalling and bricks leaching calcite only a year or two after the end of construction. Gentrification is a real problem for lower-income and long-time residents. The Milwaukee River valley is indeed being nibbled away by development that should really have stopped at North Avenue.

But new condos means more people - more homeowners - living in the city, and that is an indisputably good thing. It's good for the city's tax base, good for the schools, good for local businesses, good for the urban environment in general. Bemoan the condos all you like, but I'd sure rather see people spending their money in RiverWest than Brookfield.

Likewise, I'd rather see this part of the city (this is the city, remember?) built up densely, rather than have the equivalent amount of suburban-style development spread out over open land at Milwaukee's fringes.

Commerce Bluff Condominiums

All the new construction has created some dramatic spaces. Commerce Street, formerly the site of some heavy industry and a rail yard, is a narrow slice of land sandwiched between a large hill and the Milwaukee River. The buildings that have gone up here since 2000 climb the hill, bury themselves into it, or perch alongside the river. Courtyards, porches, balconies, stairs and walkways create a layered pile of public and private spaces.

Condo Hill

One of the most exciting aspects of the whole development is just how much creative public infrastructure has gone in.

Stairs to Brewers' Hill

The monumental Vine Street Stairs from Commerce Street up into Brewer's Hill has poetic quotes inscribed on its risers.

Marsupial Bridge

The much-publicized Marsupial Bridge, suspended beneath the Holton Avenue viaduct, is a unique public space. It gives not only a sheltered view of the river and its banks, but also a close-up look at the bridge's massive structure. On wet days, it offers bicyclists a welcome respite from the rain, as well as a handy shortcut from downtown to RiverWest. The gathering space at the east end still seems a little seedy -- even a well-landscaped space under a bridge is still under a bridge -- but has been used for a number of delightful little gatherings, such as evening movie screenings. Likewise, the bridge itself isn't quite as isolated as one might expect; it's much lower to the street and visible that one might expect - though a security camera monitoring one end still gives pause.

Milwaukee's own Rocky steps!

The Booth Streets Steps are another shortcut up the bluff to Brewer's Hill. They take dizzying flight into the sky before turning back and descending.


The Milwaukee Rowing Club's new ultra-modern boat storage building stands along the river in a break between two of the condo developments. Its low height allows it to disappear entirely from the street, leaving only the grass-covered roof. At the river, it extends the RiverWalk into a low plaza. That plaza became the site of tragedy in 2004, when two young neighborhood girls drowned in the river while playing on the boat dock. Railings were promptly installed along the RiverWalk in this location, prompting many to wonder why they weren't there in the first place.

The boat house

North Avenue Dam bridge

The North Avenue Dam, long ago broken to release the river from its captivity, has been put to creative re-use as the base structure for a pedestrian bridge. It connects Riverboat Road to Caesar's Park, a tiny slice of public land including the southeast river bank and the huge bluffs, climbed by a switchback trail. The bridge's style is as modern as the condominiums it serves, with sleek, elegant lamp posts and utterly simple railings.

Caesar's Park was rehabilitated around 2003; after years of being overgrown and potentially dangerous, much of the excess vegetation was cleared out, opening views across the river and eliminating the park's sense of dangerous isolation.

As for the condo buildings themselves, they're quite a mixed bag. Some are forgettable, one or two are rather dreadful, while several are delightful. It's a little heavy-handed to paint them all as sharing much in the way of style; they're all over the map.

Park Terrace Homes
Park Terrace homes

My personal favorites may be the Park Terrace homes, a long line of identical slender row houses tucked into the hillside. I'm a sucker for marching repetition and shadowy articulation, and the Park Terrace buildings have both in spades.

Park Terrace homes

The facade is a little flat and uninspiring when viewed head-on, but that's not how it's meant to be seen, nor how most people will see it. Most passers-by will see the buildings in profile, and that's where they shine.

Park Terrace homes

More fascinating still, a second layer of houses stands further up the bluff, practical standing on top of the first-phase houses. A new road cut into the bluff leads in from North Avenue, serving both the basement-level garages of the upper houses... and the rooftop garages of the lower houses! The entire scheme is bold and audacious, a fascinating response to a difficult building site. (One hopes they got their civil and structural engineering in order, so the whole thing doesn't start creeping down the bluff or filling up with water every time it rains.)

Commerce Street, Milwaukee

Not only that, the structures are a rare example of modern development that actually lives up to its name. It actually is a terrace, and it actually is in a park!

The terrace

River Homes at Beerline
The River Homes at Beerline (see how many names you can squeeze out by recombining "River" "Park" "Homes" and "Beerline"?) line the Milwaukee River, and their terraces extend the River Walk ever closer to its ultimate destination of North Avenue. Sadly, they don't yet connect to the lengthier portions downtown, but hey, Rome wasn't built in a day.

River Homes at Beerline

The River Homes are the earliest buildings here, and their modern stylings set the tone for many of the developments that came later. The buildings play with massing and materials; rectangular blocks overlap and intersect, while panels of brick give way to EFIS and wood siding as the buildings rise higher. Transom windows line pseudo-towers that rise above the building's mass at the river.

River Homes at Beerline

condos and river

Trostel Square
Trostel Square stands on the site of a former tannery near the western end of Commerce Street. Like River Homes and Park Terrace, the buildings are emphatically modern, clad in a mix of metal panels and brick laid out in patterns that declare the cladding's independence from structure, and massing made of overlapping rectangular prisms emerging from one another.

The buildings dare to use color, mixing light greens and oranges with brushed metal panels and red brick. It's a slightly awkward combination, but it brings welcome relief to what would otherwise be a very monochrome street.

Trostel Square

Trostel Square

Commerce Bluff
Amid all this unabashed modernism, the Commerce Bluff buildings are kind of a letdown.

Commerce Bluff Condominiums

Given a narrow site backed up against an insurmountable hill, a tall building was demanded. But the design here doesn't really celebrate that tallness. The gabled roofs seem to be taking a peck at historicism, but they just end up with blandness. A building that should be exciting simply because of its site and height instead is simply... dull.

Union Point
When people comment about how the new condos are "ugly" or whatever other derogatory term they want to use, I always kind of assume they mean the Union Point building. Festooned with tacked-on balconies and saddled with ungainly facade proportions, the building looks like it suffered a head-on collision with a budget shortfall.

Union Point

I will say this: it has a very impressive profile.

Union Point

It also adapts to its awkwardly-shaped site, turning a massive block into a block with a twist.

But those balconies just kill the whole thing. They're non-integral to the building in a way that's hard to forgive in a brand-new building, nor do they hold much appeal individually. If they'd been integrated into continuous bands -- as was actually done for the second floor, and again at the sixth -- they'd animate the building, bring controlled pattern and light to its surface, and a sense that the designer remained in control.

River Court
South of Union Point sits River Court, another project that actually lives up to its name: all the units face a central courtyard, which opens up to the river.

River Court

Here the intended effect seems to be a big solid cube of gray brick, which has been selectively cut away in places to reveal windows and wood finish beneath. Every element of the building is either "carved" from the mass or seemingly clamped onto it. It's an interesting concept (you see it a lot in architecture school projects) and has been carried out seemingly without compromise. The resulting building is a little hard to love -- it's cool and withdrawn and not terribly exciting -- but it'd hard to dislike it, too, and who can argue with that big courtyard?

RiverCrest Condominiums
The RiverCrest condominiums are another modern batch. Like the Park Terrace buildings, they are built into a steep hillside along the river. Like the River Homes, they play with massing and materials, piling rectangles high to the sky.

RiverCrest Condos

Most unusual on these buildings is the creme-colored split-faced brick. While perhaps intended to be a callback to Milwaukee's famous Cream City brick, for me it evokes nothing so much as the creamy-white brick popular in suburban houses of the 1960s that were shooting for the Camelot-era elegance of the time. Reinforcing that image is the stained wood garage doors.

RiverCrest Condos

They also use the same carved-away trick as the River Court building, but to a lesser extent; side walls give way to recessed porches opening onto shared auto courts.

Riverbridge Condominiums

A rather plain bunch is the Riverbridge Condominiums, named for the adjacent Humboldt Avenue bridge over the river. Still, the bay window massing and integrated balconies are nice enough. The most dramatic views, however, come from the outside looking in, where one can see the riverside plaza supported on arching concrete cantilevers over the banks of the river. That terrace space is all semi-public, and perhaps one distant day it will be connected to the rest of the RiverWalk.

Riverbridge Condominiums

Riverbridge Condominiums

Highbridge Condominiums
Highbridge Condominiums

Drama is the order of the day here, as yet another building tucks itself into a steep hillside. The Highbridge condos were the first to go up in this area, and still raise eyebrows with their soaring masses perched precariously on the hillside. There's something fascinating about the bay windows, which read as bits of the building's interior life bursting outwards, unable to be contained.

The building's massing is complex, with different pieces overlapping and saying different things: "grand entry", "quietly domestic", "holy crap I'm flying!"

Highbridge Condominiums

So steep is the site that the garage entrance is up top, from a dead-end street in the middle of the older neighborhood just north of Brady Street. At ground level, they're friendly enough, though the rest of the street isn't too inviting at present.

Highbridge Condominiums

Highbridge suffered some rather infamous post-construction problems that led to a lot of lawsuits and misery.

Commerce Street

So, yeah, I really like the Valley of the Condos. It's an exciting place, unabashedly new and modern, friendly and welcoming to bikes and pedestrians, with some of the best public space in the city.

  • Milwaukee Department of City Development Beerline B page
  • Thursday, October 23, 2008

    Bye-bye baby blue

    Much as I hated to admit it, I always figured that the blue brick Midcentury building at North and Prospect would be coming down. Sitting adjacent to an empty gas station and its own parking lot, it'd be an easy sacrifice to make, to allow combination of the lots and creation of one large building site.

    I was right... and I was wrong.

    The blue brick building, Milwaukee

    Blue building site

    They tore down the blue building, alright -- much to my regret. But in its place is coming... a building of similar mass and footprint. Meanwhile, the gas station lot has got its own building already, a brand-new Bruegger's Bagels.


    North & Prospect

    Make no mistake, this is definitely an improvement over the vacant gas station (even when it was occupied.) But... I'm a little surprised that something more ambitious didn't arise here.

    Meanwhile, the blue building will be replaced by a new branch building for the Educator's Credit Union. Trading out a two-story building for a one-story building? How does that work?

    Coming Soon

    The new building is purported to be a Prairie Style structure, though it's hard to discern from the rendering shown here. The architect, Racine's Genesis Architecture, does show some beautiful Prairie Style work on their web site, so perhaps it's just down to my crappy photograph of the sign.

    But I miss the blue building. It's yet another case of tearing down something not just because it's old, but because it's the wrong kind of old. We need a new old instead, an older old! The style of forty years ago is never new enough, and never old enough. By the time Midcentury Modern has aged enough to be old, valued and historic, by the time we're far enough removed from its time to look back on it with fresh eyes and truly appreciate it... Milwaukee will have torn it all down.

    Blue brick

    Additionally, if the building absolutely had to go... I really wanted one of those bricks.

    Tuesday, October 21, 2008

    90 miles apart

    Being in Milwaukee this weekend made me acutely aware of some of the differences between it and Chicago. It's more than just a matter of scale. The difference of size causes different attitudes, different mentalities.

    Milwaukee is a city that's still close to the land. It is shaped by topography, sitting atop 80-foot high bluffs that overlook Lake Michigan. It's a small city, small enough that people who essentially live out in the country can take part in its daily life, and people who live in the city have many options for outdoor sports and activities. That connection gives it an often rural attitude. People in Milwaukee come from small towns. They root for the Packers -- it's not just a cliche. They hike and fish and hunt and backpack and camp and canoe on their weekends. That same rural attitude, applied to city living, gives the city an air of smart environmentalism; it also means that Milwaukee sometimes fights against its own nature as a city (just look at the hew and cry over bus funding and rail transit, or the reluctance to convert 794 to a surface parkway, or the fuss over tearing down a useless stretch of highway, or...) Milwaukee is a small niche of the (reluctantly) man-made perched among the vast wilderness of Lake Michigan.

    Chicago by contrast has long since conquered nature, which is sequestered away in distant woodlands known collectively as the Forest Preserve. Chicago's Lake Michigan coast is entirely artificial, constructed over a hundred years of city-building, and gives an illusion of control over the vast body of water. The city sprawls for thirty miles in every direction, ensuring no easy escape from its artificial environment. The resources of the Great Lakes funnel down to Chicago, which is the drain through which they flow, the sieve that sorts them, the mill which grinds them up and churns out product. Chicago is less a part of Lake Michigan and more an engine strapped to its side, converting its resources to commercial goods and fountaining wealth across the region.

    At their cores, the cities may seem similar -- glistening downtowns perched on idyllic lakefronts (indeed, Milwaukee's lakefront is no less artificial than that of Chicago.) But the difference is in how they spread themselves across the land. In barely five minutes of driving north from downtown, Milwaukee's Gold Coast high rises give way to single family homes, and five minutes after that these houses gain their own private beaches and forests. By Whitefish Bay, the view up the coast is essentially the same as it will be for the next hundred miles. One must travel a good ten miles north of central Chicago to find a single-family home with a lake view. Milwaukee is a short interruption of nature; Chicago is its own nature.

    Thursday, October 02, 2008

    A south side mystery

    Wadhams Gas Station

    It began with a photo on Flickr, showing the well-known brick wall on 1st Street where a Wadham's gas station pagoda once stood. The building's outline remains embedded on the wall, along with part of a painted sign.

    "Oh," I commented. "I have a photo of that when it was still standing." But a dig through my film archives showed no such thing. Apparently, I was thinking of this place instead, which I photographed in the summer of 2001.

    I have no idea if it was a Wadham's or not. I'm not even sure where it stood -- somewhere between the Modjeska Theater on Mitchell Street, and St. Hyacinth's a few blocks south on Becher Street, to judge by the before and after images on my negatives.

    Wadhams Gas Station

    Where was it? What was it? I turn to my readers for answers -- I have none!

    Monday, July 21, 2008

    Discovery World

    View from the new breakwater

    It's hard to argue with the new Discovery World building. From the outside, it's a knockout from every angle. It's a beautiful compliment to the Art Museum addition, without aping it.

    I visited Discovery World about a year ago, and got to see how the inside relates to the outside. The building's functions are expressed well from the outside, about... 75% of the way through, I'd say.

    Discovery World

    The Headhouse is clearly distinct as a gathering point, a circular structure with balconies at the top. Those balconies surround a ballroom/meeting space, and provide spectacular views of the city, the lake, and the new harbor to the south. An awkward moment does occur when storage space winds up being placed on the outside of the third floor space, complete with windows and a view of the harbor. Oops! It might have been better placed in a block with the elevators nearby -- service functions like that should be grouped; it's a basic rule of thumb. It also emphasizes some of the inherent difficulty of a round building.

    Lucky tables and chairs

    The main body of the building is laid out along a broad, tall corridor lined with windows facing the bay to the south, an attractive and open space that provides easy orientation.

    The glass tube

    At the end, one turns right and enters the primary exhibit space, which is dominated by a double-spiral staircase with an elaborate moving model in the center. A window wall to the north provides continued orientation, and creates a delightful view of the colorfully-lit model by night.

    Glowing in the night

    Discovery World

    Past this point, however, clarity starts to fall apart. A second room on the first floor kind of dead ends. The main room on the second floor is a bit chopped up by its exhibits, with no clear main circulation path. Classrooms and other interactive areas are accessed through an odd hallway that makes one hesitate to proceed, uncertain if they're headed toward a mock TV studio, the corporate offices, or the boiler room. It was at this point that I got the impression that this portion of the building had been designed from the outside in, rather than allowing the functions to generate the plan, and the exterior form to follow from that.

    Some of the second floor exhibits were still under construction when I visited, so it's possible things may become more clear with time. Some bold signs would have gone a long way toward clarifying what was where.

    Outside, the building and its grounds succeed brilliantly. What was once a completely forgettable section of the lakefront is now fully integrated with the parks and museum to the north, and the newly-opened Lakeshore State Park and the Summerfest Grounds to the south.

    Facing the new harbor

    The building's water-facing sides are wrapped with cantilevered walkways, offering exciting views of the new harbor and the lake waters to the south. The walkways hook up with a new breakwater with attached docks and a small connected amphitheater. The amphitheater faces a new dock for the sailing ship Dennis Sullivan. It's a brilliant expansion of Milwaukee's already-magnificent lakefront, and adds a worthy attraction to the lakefront's offerings. In light of that, a few architectural flukes are pretty negligible.

    Discovery World

    Wednesday, July 16, 2008

    Amtrak Station burdened by junk

    Amtrak station

    I recently visited the spacious new waiting room of Milwaukee's remodeled passenger depot. Perhaps "depot" is a poor choice of words, because the building no longer treats passengers like cargo. The dark and minimal waiting area has been replaced with a vast, bright and airy space.

    The Waiting Room

    As a consequence of the narrow space available for the expansion, the waiting room features a strange set of proportions. It is as taller than it is wide, and very long, running uninterrupted for the 300-foot length of the building. The pick-up-sticks wall of angled steel box beams begs to be beheld from a distance, to be appreciated in its entirety, but it's not quite possible with the room's narrow width.

    Still, it is an airy and comfortable space, open and inviting, big but not overwhelming, much like Milwaukee itself. The white color continues a trend started by several of the city's most prominent new structures: the Art Museum addition, the 6th Street viaduct, and the new Discovery World building.

    Functionally, the space breaks up into three parts. The western half is used for Greyhound passengers; chairs ring a large open area. The center portion is a general dining/communal area, designated by three tall trees and round tables. The eastern half is for Amtrak passengers, and is marked by multiple rows of chairs.

    The Window Wall

    This is not a pristine space; it is of course meant filled with chairs. Several large potted trees enliven the center of the space, breaking up the room's endless length. And the crazy-quilt structure of the window wall itself suggests some of the chaos naturally associated with travel. Yet there is something clean and crisp about it, and I was disappointed to find that the management has seen fit to clutter the entire space with junk.


    More junk, and soda.

    Much of this detritus was clearly not planned for, and was added after the fact. That monster game machine really should have its own dedicated space, in a game room somewhere (it makes a lot of noise as well, disturbing the peace of everyone waiting to travel.) And while trash cans and ATMs are necessary accoutrement of everyday life, there are ways to deal with them more elegantly than to jam them up against every available column.

    One of those ways, for example, is to provide a dedicated alcove for objects like vending machines. It's not beautiful, but at least it gets them out of the way. And it seems that someone had this in mind... but somewhere in the planning process, the fact that vending machines require electricity wasn't accounted for. And thus, while an alcove big enough for twenty soda machines does indeed line the south wall of the waiting area, it's empty, because there's nothing to plug the machines into.

    Connect the dots

    Instead, they cluster clumsily around the ends of the alcove, butting out into the concourse area, not only looking ugly in their own right but giving the space the sort of ad hoc messiness that really shouldn't be present in a freshly remodeled building. Even allowing for the mistake of not including enough outlets, one would think that fifty dollars would be available to pick up a couple of extension cords and get the machines into the alcove where they belong.

    And more soda.

    Attempts to lure a full-time restaurant to the station have not met with much success, but with this phalanx of vending machines, the station already has the equivalent of a small 7-Eleven.

    My one other criticism with the station's interior pertains to the Greyhound end of the waiting area. Travel by Greyhound is a catch-as-catch-can affair; one must wait in line to be assured of getting a spot on the bus. To that end, passengers typically use their luggage as a stand-in so they can sit while waiting. The open space of the waiting area serves this need adequately, providing plenty of seats surrounding the luggage line-up that allow passengers to keep an eye on their bags. Yet it remains a chaotic solution, and I wonder if other, more elegant alternatives were explored (integrating the line with the waiting room chairs, for example, or a numbering system.)

    Outside, it took a little bit of searching to locate the bike racks. They're tucked away behind the Greyhound boarding area on the building's west end, out of sight from the road (and nearly everything else.) I'm not sure how I feel about the arrangement; while it doesn't advertise the presence of locked bikes to passersby, it also doesn't seem to be a very well-watched area.

    Hidden bike racks

    The bike racks are correctly installed, with plenty of room on all sides, and they are the multiple-U racks which are ideal for parking any type of bicycle. Having any racks at all is a great step up from the state of affairs during the renovation, and I do appreciate that bicyclists were given this thoughtful parking arrangement.

    Criticisms aside, the new waiting area is a welcome addition to the Milwaukee traveling experience. Hopefully the building's management will soon relocate some of the clutter that's currently dragging down an otherwise pleasant and modern space.