Tuesday, October 30, 2007

City Hall Rising... in cost.

City Hall's Settling, er, Unsettling News - JS column by Jim Stingl.

We've Sunk a Bundle Into City Hall - JS column by Mike Nichols, in which the author has the gall to propose tearing down Milwaukee's single most iconic pre-Calatrava building.

Milwaukee City Hall

Not related, but:
Want a really long commute? Take the 'A' train - JS column by Patrick McIlheran. Man, I hate it when snotty* conservatives are, more-or-less, correct.

(Of course, his unspoken argument of "BIG CITY BAD, SMALL CITY GOOD, SUBURB BETTER" dodges the issue of, who's the more successful city, New York or Milwaukee? Which one has the most valuable real estate? Where's the most money being made? Which one is drawing the most people? It also disregards the likelihood that 40 minutes on the train is far more pleasant and potentially productive than 25 minutes fighting through traffic.)

* "Snotty" because in this and other columns, there's this unspoken, passive-aggressive implication that suburbs are the one and only thing that everyone really wants, that all their problems are just propaganda, that they and they alone represent the perfection of some kind of American democratic libertarian ideal of Free Choice For Everyone, that the only reason those annoying cities even exist is because... someone, probably evil liberals, forced innocent suburban taxpayers to surrender their hard-earned dollars to give away to undeserving urban elitists, that the only reason anybody lives in cities at all is because freedom-hating commie terrorists are forcing them to, and that if a city advocate dares support urban development of any kind anywhere, it's going to force everyone everywhere to live jam-packed into hundred-story high rises.

The truth is a tad more murky than that, since most of those suburbs wouldn't work or even exist without the insanely expensive government-funded Interstate highway system to function as their backbone, or without the government-funded GI bills that favored such development for decades, or without the urban core to act as the seed-germ that allowed them to exist at all. And god forbid people advocate building urban environments in the city! That's just crazy talk!

I'm a little unfair taking it all out on this one poor columnist who does make some efforts to be balanced in his reporting, but it's a hypocritical, paranoid, unfair, and inaccurate attitude I've seen time and time again among conservatives and/or suburban advocates, and I'm more than a little sick of it. We're not coming to take away your stupid mega-mansions and half-acre lots. We just want to live the way we want to live, and maybe not pay for your billion dollar highway expansion that we're never going to use.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Pabst Brewery Demolition

Pabst Brewery
Pabst Brewery from the east, October 2004.

I've seen it happen several times in St. Louis and Milwaukee: a massive complex of buildings, built up and added onto over many decades, is abandoned, decays for a while, becomes an urban explorer's paradise, finally gets bought up, is partially demolished, and winds up redeveloped.

It's that "partially demolished" bit that always brings me down.

Building 3

Building 3 demolition
Building 3 under demolition

I've never worked on the design of such a complex, so it's hard to say just what is and isn't always possible. Certainly there are times when one building needs to come out so that light can reach the windows of its neighbor. Sometimes remediation is simply prohibitively difficult. And of course decay takes a toll on abandoned structures, and not everything can be saved.

But it seems like, inevitably, the final result is to thin out and water down some of what makes such complexes so fascinating, which is their delightfully jumbled massing. A place like the Gallun Tannery or Pabst Brewery is a visual pile of buildings on top of buildings on top of still more buildings, scrambled up and accumulated piecemeal over a long and complex history. They have the density that cities need built right into their very structure. They are frantic masses of architecture, laden with secret corners and hidden delight.

But the first thing developers do is to come in and start knocking things down -- tearing away at the very thing that makes the complex so compelling.

Building 11

Building 11 demoltion
Building 11 under demolition

There's a loss of history and architecture, too. Building 11 at the Pabst Brewery was of the same age and architectural style as the historic buildings that are to remain, and had nicer crenellation details than many of the survivors.

Purely functional accretions are frequently swept away, too, removing the gritty industrial nature of places like Pabst. Pipes, ducts, and non-architectural structures are removed as a standard part of sanitizing a complex, seemingly with no thought given to how they might be reused and incorporated into the renovation.

Pabst Brewery

Jungle gym, vine-covered trellis, multi-colored sculpture, surreal pagoda, scenic overlook, straightforward monument to industrial history -- there are innumerable possibilities for such a construct, if one looks beyond the norm.

Power Plant
Power Plant

Pabst Brewery
Power Plant under demolition

But we live in a culture that strives to sanitize, to the point that simply taking on the challenge of renovating a historic complex is already going far out on a limb. To leave it looking something like the aged industrial complex that it actually is? Outrageous! Out of the question!

However, much to the credit of the developers behind The Brewery, Building 20 will apparently retain its multi-story atrium and the enormous brew kettles within.

Even more impressive, the grain elevators -- described on the site as iconic -- will be retained, and are advertised as a potential location for an elevated restaurant or similar facility. That's exactly the sort of creative thinking needed for a site like this -- not just on a macro scale, but also carried down to the fine details.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Wetlands in the Valley

One summer evening a while back, I was headed by bike out to the Target near Miller Park, headed west through the Menomonee Valley. Imagine my delight when I found that not only had a very smooth and generously wide bike path been completed alongside the road, but that some of the vast lands of the former Milwaukee Road Shops had been converted into a sort of neo-wetlands park.

Hank Aaron State Trail

Two massive smokestacks are the final structures remaining from the enormous complex that once sprawled over many acres. Intended to be preserved as a tribute to the area's industrial heritage, their future was in doubt for some while. But they have been successfully restored.

Menomonee Valley reconstruction
April, 2006

Hank Aaron State Trail
August 2007

The smokestacks form the centerpiece of the new Chimney Park. Around them, the modest and cleanly modern landscaping that has sprung up underneath the 35th Street Viaduct looks great. New holding ponds attempt to restore some of the wetland that was lost in the rush to development over a century ago. Simple curving gravel paths wind among them, complete with small viewing overlooks and scattered benches.

Overall it's a lovely and peaceful counterpoint to the renewing industry that fills the rest of the valley.

Milwaukee Road Shops

Signsrelate the history of the valley, as well as the intent of the various new projects that have gone in.

Hank Aaron State Trail

The signs and the bike trail are part of the Hank Aaron State Trail, an ambitious effort to create a continuous connection from the lake all the way out to Miller Park. From the description on the web site, the east end has a long way to go -- they want you to go through some alley, turn, turn again, turn again... I've been through that area plenty of times and never seen any signage to indicate where this all is supposed to happen.

But west of 6th Street, it's pure biking bliss.

As a bicyclist, I can't overstate how much I appreciate this bike path. It's broad, separated from the street, gently curved and sloped, and freshly paved with smooth asphalt. It runs unbroken for several miles, providing easy passage through an area whose potholed and train track-laced streets can be intimidating. And future expansion plans are exciting -- imagine being able to ride from the East Side on the bike path, down to the lakefront, then all the way out to the State Fair grounds -- all without having to ride on a major road!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Train Station Progress

Milwaukee's train station has been under remodeling for a year or so, and it's coming together. The inside's a shifting maze of construction partitions and temporary spaces as the work moves around to keep the station operational during construction; outside, the strange tangle of structural beams that form the new front elevation has been assembled, painted, and clad in glass. The space behind it will serve as the new waiting area, a bright and open space to replace the old dim and dingy interior.

Milwaukee Amtrak Station

Milwaukee Amtrak Station

Milwaukee Amtrak Station

Train station progress

The remodeling meant the loss of one of the city's most prominent examples of New Formalist architecture, but the building as built was an unacceptably degrading way to enter the city, with a dim and depressing interior virtually devoid of windows, natural light, and charm of any sort.

Milwaukee Amtrak Station

I don't know what to think of the crazy-quilt arrangement of random diagonal structural members; it looks a bit like somebody's pet crazy academic theory come to life, or else random chaos -- an attempt to substitute flash for substance and well-designed order. But at least it should make the waiting room space interesting, and it'll make the station easy to find: meet me at the pick-up-sticks building! The news space will certainly be bright, inviting and spacious.

But amid all the hype surrounding the waiting room and ticketing remodel, what's being overlooked is that the process of boarding trains will remain as uninviting as ever, since the renovation will not be touching the train shed.

The train shed (and I cannot think of a more appropriately derisive name for it) is and will remain a singularly dingy, undignified and unattractive place. It is lit solely by sodium vapor lamps. It sends passengers down a mini-maze of grungy concrete tunnels. And as a space, it's utterly forgettable, with almost no design elements beyond basic necessities whatsoever.

The entire art of boarding and detraining with grace seems to have been lost in America. Most of the great train sheds of yesteryear have been retired (St. Louis's Union Station) or demolished (Chicago's Union Station, New York's Penn Station, the latter famously eulogized by Vincent Scully: "Through it one entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.") The Penn Station train shed was a true work of art, a cathedral in raw iron and glass, with shafts of sunlight piercing its depths. Milwaukee's train shed is a dingy bunker that deserves to be ripped down and replaced with something designed by someone who gives a damn, rather than someone committed to putting up the cheapest roof possible.

Still. The rat warren may remain at trackside, but at least Milwaukee will soon have a dignified place to wait for a train.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Meanwhile, down in Chicago....

So I'm livin' in Chi-town now. I still have a lot more topics in Milwaukee to wrap up, but here's a few notes from 90 miles south.

First off: I never thought I'd miss Milwaukee's mamby-pamby wussy-foot drivers, but now I'm not so sure. When drivers in Milwaukee come across a guy on a bike, they generally act as though they've never seen such a thing in all their lives. They hang out behind it as if they're scared to get too close, and they will not pass unless they can give like twenty feet of clearance. I always figure Milwaukee drivers think their cars are much fatter than they actually are.

It's always annoyed me -- I need drivers to GO, to pass me quickly, so I'm free to dodge and swerve around whatever obstacle come my way. If a car's hanging out behind me, I can't juke around potholes or opening doors or whatever, because I don't know where the car behind me is.

But not down in Chicago! Oh, Chicago drivers know exactly how wide their cars are, they know the biker only needs about a foot to spare, and lord almighty that's about all they give you!

On the plus side, drivers down here aren't so all-fired determined to give up their right-of-way at four-way stop signs. In Milwaukee, it doesn't matter if the driver got there first, it doesn't matter if he's been sitting there five minutes waiting to go, it doesn't matter if he's having a fricking life emergency -- if he sees a bicycle within half a mile of that stop sign, he's gonna sit there and wait for that bike to go! Nothing infuriates me more than coming to a complete stop, only to have some driver insist that I take a right-of-way that's not mine. Dude. I've already stopped. You're not doing me any favors. You're just wasting everyone's time -- yours, mine, and whoever's waiting behind us. You think I'm gonna run out in front of you and your half-ton death machine? What, do I look stupid? If I was stupid, I'd be driving!!

Take your damn right-of-way!!!

*phew*, I needed to get that out of my system.

Second: I have taken an initial measure of the North Branch Chicago River "bike trail", and found it wanting. Much of it's either too rough, too twisty, or too sidewalk-like to qualify as a useful bike path. On top of that it repeatedly changes sides of the river and crosses very major roads instead of ducking under bridges. But the worst offender was a portion near Touhy Avenue that suffers from a severe case of "designed by architects".

"Designed by architects" is my derisive catch-all for any built object that puts style over functionality, to the detriment of the latter. In this case, a portion of the "bike trail" is actually a concrete sidewalk, that repeatedly offsets like a stair. If two bikers were negotiating this in opposite directions, they'd take a path that hits both of the inside corners and inevitably collide. You don't make a bicycle go through a right-angle turn! Oh, but it looks so cool to have this sidewalk that just ends, but only it doesn't end, it actually keeps going! Designed by architects.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Coast Guard Station Salvation?


A new proposal has been floated to rehab the 1916 Coast Guard Station along Milwaukee's lakefront, calling for conversion of the Prairie Style building to a maritime museum focused on Milwaukee and Lake Michigan. The time limits on the previous proposal, an Indian cultural center that's been floating around in fund-raising limbo for 4 years, expired over the summer, prompting Milwaukee County to call for its demolition.

Milwaukee Coast Guard Station

The Coast Guard station has been allowed to rot for decades, subject to fires, a deteriorating roof, and a collapsing sea wall. In its current state, it's one of those buildings that easy for laypersons or developers to dismiss as an "eyesore" (one of my pet peeve words as it's so often abused and misused.)

Coast Guard Station

Renovated, however, it could be a thing of unquestioned beauty. It's a bit hard to see through all the window boardups and general decay -- this building has none of the ornamental razzamatazz of City Hall or the Pfister Hotel. Its beauty is a bit more subtle.... and till it's renovated, it's hard to fully appreciate.

I will say this: it's absurd that anyone would oppose a private for-profit entity's proposals to redevelop this historic property. Opposition to private business on the lakefront is meant to keep it from turning into a giant parking lot or housing development -- not to remove options from preserving important parts of its own heritage. We allow the marina to operate. There's a kite stand, a concession stand, bike rentals, the Art Museum, Discovery World, Alterra... we really couldn't find a way to let some restauranteer or other willing entrepreneur get in and do what must be done to salvage the Coast Guard Station?

Milwaukee Coast Guard Station
The building after an April 2005 fire that damaged the roof.

This is an existing building, not someone coming in out of the blue and gobbling up open park land. It's a part of the lakefront's heritage. Show some common sense, Milwaukee! This handsome beast deserves to be saved.

Friday, October 05, 2007

North Point Lighthouse

The historic North Point Lighthouse and its conjoined keeper's quarters have been empty for many years, but over the past year an extensive reconstruction project has been bringing the 1888 keeper's house back into a proper state. I've been dropping by on occasion to follow the progress.

October 2003:
North Point Lighthouse
Boarded up and closed for years.

April 25, 2007:
North Point Lighthouse renovation
Lots of wood elements are being removed, indicating extensive rot.

June 10, 2007:
North Point Lighthouse update
New porch framing and sheathing.

August 11, 2007:
Lighthouse update
New roof and cladding.

September 27, 2007:
Lighthouse update
Grounds beginning to shape up.

The current lighthouse was built in 1879 (replacing a 1855 structure threatened by bluff erosion) and re-used the existing lantern. Its height was doubled in 1912 as trees growing on the bluffs obscured the view, and it operated until 1994.

When work is finished in the fall, this venerable old structure will be opened for tours. Huzzah!

More on the North Point Lighthouse: Seeing the Light, including a vintage postcard of the original appearance of the tower and keeper's house, showing the house's original design intent a bit more clearly than can be seen today.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Bayshore Town Center: Still a Place for Cars

Having made a few trips up there, I figure it's time to throw out my two bits' worth on Bay Shore Town Center.

Bayshore Town Center

Let me start by saying that, whatever gripes I and others may have, they've really achieved something remarkable here. It's a brand new Main Street, something we haven't built in America in five decades. It does a lot of things right: streetside parking, sidewalks, lots of visual and functional connections between inside and outside, public spaces, mixed uses, a welcoming and inviting atmosphere. There may have been some tactical and strategic blunders along the way, but the people who built this thing were striving to make something a cut above the usual suburban drek of our times, and I really appreciate that.

Bayshore Town Center

That said, I have some gripes. Some are easily fixed. Others... well, like I said, this sort of thing hasn't been done for fifty years, so maybe it's inevitable that it'll take a few tries to work out the kinks.

Make no mistake about this place: pedestrian-oriented or not, parking is still king. Parking lots, curbside parking, parking garages, and more parking lots surround and suffuse the place. There is an assumption in place that 100% of customers will arrive by automobile. You can see it in any number of ways.

For example: where the hell are the bike racks?! I surveyed the entire complex and, after much searching, located a grand total of three bike racks in the entire place. One's next to Alterra Coffee, one's kind of tucked off to the side by the central plaza, and one is a battered relic outside the entrance to Trader Joe's, which itself is rather detached from the pedestrian action to the east. Only this last one seems to be placed with the idea that customers using a store might arrive by bicycle.

Bayshore Town Center

Bayshore Town Center

The sidewalks ought to be lined with small M-racks, or the loops that simply bolt onto parking meters. Every major store ought to have a longer set of M-racks. Kohl's certainly has the room for it:

Bayshore Town Center

In a complex that's overflowing with parking, the lack of consideration for bicyclists is appalling. This problem could be fixed with relative ease.

For a "town center" based around a Main Street concept, the complex is a bit disconnected from the actual main commercial artery of Whitefish Bay, Silver Spring Drive. To get from Silver Spring to the heart of BSTC requires navigating a winding road past a minefield of parking lot and garage entrances. It's intimidating on a bike and not much fun in a car.

Bayshore Town Center

Winding roads, in fact, seem to be commonplace. It's largely an artifact of working around randomly placed existing buildings. Whatever the cause, it slows traffic down to a pedestrian pace (in such intimate quarters, that's a good thing), and it gives the commercial portions of the complex a bit of charm they might otherwise lack. To claim the place is without any sense of the past is not really accurate -- the whole thing is very much shaped by the existing mall buildings that have gone up over the past few decades.

Bayshore Town Center

On the east side, Bayshore Town Center remains as oblivious as ever to its residential neighbors, facing them with vast parking lots and the backsides of the mall's older buildings. The new exit to the east doesn't even align with the street across from it.

Bayshore Town Center

Probably the intention was to have the new street on axis with the central plaza, but a more respectful approach to the existing street grid would have been to align the road with the older street, then curve it as required to bring it onto the desired axis. At the outer edge of the complex, nobody is going to be awe-struck by the axial view past a hundred yards of parking lots.

Bayshore Town Center

On the west side, the Center pays proper homage to the nearby roaring interstate -- by turning its back to it, showing little besides parking lots and garages. This is the proper place to load up the sea of parking -- not where the mall abutts an older suburban neighborhood.

Bayshore Town Center

As others have mentioned, the architecture is largely forgettable -- a mishmash of contemporary commercial (acceptable, not especially interesting) and historical pastiche (corny, depressing), with the sole exception of a snazzy Modernist steakhouse, clad with a stunning contrast of polished flat-cut black stone panels, and random ashlar stone.

Bayshore Town Center

Bayshore Town Center

It's not as though the same red brick and EFIS that clad most of the buildings couldn't have been used to more memorable effect. It could have. But the designers or the owners wanted something that would conjure up vague images of an ambiguous historical past, and weren't willing to pay the considerable amounts of money it would take to do it right. That's the thing about contemporary architecture: it's good design adapted to today's building technologies. Do it right and it can be (relatively) affordable and good looking! Try and reproduce.... whatever it is they're trying to reproduce here without using the real materials, the real techniques, the real craftsmanship that went into the original, and you're going to end up with buildings that look like soggy cardboard.

Bayshore Town Center

And finally, at times it seems the architects didn't quite leave themselves enough room for all the ugly necessities:

Bayshore Town Center

There's also a lack of benches or other places to simply linger, outside of the central plaza.

So. There's lessons for next time. Meanwhile, the revived Bayshore seems to be doing a good business. You go there and you'll find people wandering the sidewalks, mingling, travelling on foot, even if only for a little while. Given that this is the closet thing we've had to urban expansion in the northern 'burbs, it's hard to find fault with that.