Tuesday, December 19, 2006

11 Story Condo near Downer Ave.

I'm always a little slow following these things, so it's kinda old news, but plans are in the works for an 11-story condominium tower, just west of the Starbucks/Harry Schwartz Bookstore on Downer. The building will take down 4 existing houses on N. Stowell Avenue, just north of E. Webster Place, in addition to one that was destroyed for a development proposd for the site some years ago. I will be photographing those houses the first chance I get, which unfortunately probably won't be for a couple of weeks. An aerial view of the site may be viewed at Google Maps.

Much has been written about the project, online and elsewhere; yard signs have sprouted around the East Side both for and against ("No 11 story condo" and something along the lines of "YES to developing Downer Avenue").

Three renderings of the project can be found at OnMilwaukee.com. It looks like a good building, a cut above the norm for a condo tower. Still, at that scale, I worry it will overpower the neighborhood. The area hardly has any claim to historic congruity; gabled duplexes are dotted among apartment buildings from the 1920s and 1960s in a variety of scales. But almost all of the apartment blocks are four stories or fewer. The only towers in the area are a single apartment building at the southern edge of the neighborhood, and the distant buildings of Columbia-St. Mary Hospital. Inserting a high rise into the middle of the area will definately alter its flavor.

It's easy to get alarmed about change of that nature; I could see it as analogous to a Georgetown in Washington DC, or one of Chicago's many vital neighborhoods, where historic survivors stand shoulder-to-shoulder with numerous newer buildings. Such neighborhoods can be vital, exciting places to work and live... but they can also conflict with the sleepy, pleasant aura that much of East Side exudes in its present condition.

I was a little shocked by this quote, from the UWM Post blog:

[New Land Enterprise's Tim] Gokhman sees as vital to development on the East Side. He also believes that this project could revitalize an important segment of the neighborhood.

“It’s important to infuse life back into the Downer Avenue district.”

Infuse life into one of the most successful, vital, and active commercial strips in the city? The center of a busy, healthy, well-to-do neighborhood? I've always been under the impression that many of the strip's problems come from the whimsical demands of certain landlords, rather than a lack of willing tenants.


New Land Enterprises has, according to their web site, been responsible for some of the best condo developments on the East Side and downtown in recent years. It's a shame we can't hook them up with the former Sentry site on Oakland Avenue!

Edit, 2/05/07: The houses may be seen in this post. It's a moot point, however, because they were all demolished in the first weeks of January. The site is now empty. No salvage appears to have occurred, an incredible waste considering the materials this sort of building is typically made of.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Future teardowns?

I found time this weekend to get out and photograph the two houses that face the threat of demolition by their new owner, the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.

2005 E. Kenwood Blvd:
2005 E. Kenwood Blvd.

2009 E. Kenwood Blvd:
2009 E. Kenwood Blvd.

Both shots link back to more photos at my Flickr account.

More has already been written about these homes than I could ever do; I will simply state that I feel that tearing them down will damage the block and the neighborhood.

On the flip side, I can sympathize with MJF. It's nearly impossible to find an empty lot for construction on the East Side. But surely there are better candidates for demolition than these two.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Holy Family Catholic Church, Whitefish Bay, WI

Holy Family Catholic Church, in Whitefish Bay.

Built in 1969, it's a delightful collection of funky ideas and common Mid-Century design elements, assembled with a sure and steady hand. Its time period can be identified, but it's not dated.

Holy Family Catholic Church, Whitefish Bay, WI

The stained glass is very restrained in its color pallette, mostly in muted tones of yellows, browns, and purples. The effect is decorative but not overwhelming.

But the centerpiece element is a curved wall punctured by a couple dozen porthole windows, filled with stained glass:

Holy Family Catholic Church, Whitefish Bay, WI

It's a creative interpretation of the massive stained glass windows that often appear behind the church alter. And as the sun travels across it, the curves and shadows change and play across each other to delightful effect. Love it!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Auto theft

My housemate's car was stolen off the street in front of our house, presumably by some asshole. It's a white Honda Civic hatchback, 1991, with a trailer hitch, a bunch of plastic toys on the dashboard, and a Russ Feingold sticker on the back. If by chance you've seen it, drop me a line.

Car theft and vandalism is one of the great banes of modern urban living. Cars are incredibly vunerable; it only takes a split second and a heavy rock to inflict several hundred dollars worth of damage -- usually in pursuit of a car stereo that will fetch only a fraction of that when sold.

I personally have become somewhat detached from my car emotionally; I view it as a necessity, but not a source of great personal pride or investment. I can afford to do this, as it's generally more of a convenience than a necessity (though reaching a Target in the winter would be a bitch without it.) My suburban friends are utterly baffled by my relative non-reaction to the times my car has been violated; I can only assume they regard their vehicles as sacrosanct, sacred.

I guess I would too if I had no other way to bring home the groceries.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

East side updates

ITEM: The wreckers have started hitting the old Sentry Foods on Oakland. They're maybe 1/4th of the way through it as of this evening.

And in a brazen affront to the neighborhood, Walgreens will not be constructing a full apartment building, just their own store. The obvious conclusion is that the apartments were always a myth, a lure to get the powers-that-be to go along with tearing down the Sentry.

With the competition of Sentry's removed, Walgreens will be much closer to a lockup on neighborhood grocery foot traffic. Without a full multi-use building going up, it is far more likely that the new Walgreens will be a chain-standard, single-use, single-story building with a large parking lot, degrading the public realm of the Oakland Avenue commercial district. The chain has taken away our neighborhood grocery store, and in return they will give us a worse environment than we had before.

ITEM: I'm pleased to report construction activity at three of the tear-down sites I wrote about earlier. Foundation walls have been poured at the N. Warren site (north of Brady) and the Cambridge & Irving site (also north of Brady, near the North Ave. Dam.) Excavation has begun at the N. Cramer & Greenwich site, near the East Side Library.

ITEM: Signs have appeared around UWM's campus, wanting to "Save 2005 and 2009 Kenwood", referring to a pair of handsome, sturdy-looking single-family homes at Kenwood and Prospect that are in danger of demolition. Their new owner, the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, wants to tear them down to construct a new Hillel Center.

The Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission has conducted a review of the two buildings, which are part of a lineup of similarly-styled houses all built by the same builder.

The report details the architectural and historic significance of the houses at length, but even disregarding that, their demolition should be opposed on grounds of urban design and planning. The brutal, inhuman segment of UWM's campus that faces the houses is somewhat mitigated by the intimate scale of the residential buildings on the south side of Kenwood, which can also provide badly needed East Side housing. Their integrity should not be degraded.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Chicago Subterranian Warren Station

Unlike New York City, which demolished its spectacular Penn Station in the early 1960s and replaced it with a forgettable rat's maze of dimly lit underground passages, Chicago still retains a grand central rail terminal:

Chicago Union Station

My question, then, is: why aren't they using it?

I mean, okay, maybe I don't pass through during peak hours, and maybe it's jammed then. But the times I have been through -- early evening, generally -- are still pretty busy times, but there ain't a soul hanging out in this place. Instead, passengers must wait in the uninspiring confines of a network of bland hallways that doesn't have much on the awful Penn Station that replaced the original.

Maybe it's the complete and utter lack of seating? Why aren't there benches and boarding signage, so you can wait in a place that's digified? Why wasn't the station configured to use this magnificent space as the main entrance and exit, instead of a side door that only a few people come across by chance?

(The answer, of course, is that the original concourse -- a spacious, airy, light-filled place -- was demolished in 1969 so some awful office towers could be built on its site. This was sold to the public as "modernizing" the station.)

Bike Lane surprise

When I bike, I ride fast. I cruise at 15-20mph, and downhill or with the wind behind me, I can sometimes hit 25-30mph. On many city streets, that's comparable to the speed of traffic.

It also means that if something goes wrong, it can potentially go very, very wrong.

Something nearly went wrong Tuesday night as I biked home from work, northbound on Prospect. As I passed the construction site of the Park Lafayette condo tower, the handy bike lane suddenly gave way to a number of rough, irregular black asphalt patches. This being the season of early sunsets, it was dark, of course; I had no idea what I was about to hit. With a wall of cars moving alongside me, going around wasn't an option. I slammed on the brakes ahd held on tight. My U-lock came flying off its mounts on one of the bumps but otherwise I survived.

I hope they'll fix these patches soon -- they're dangerous!

Monday, October 16, 2006

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

UWM Dorm opposition

The sign shown below cropped up in front of a couple of East Side houses some time in the last few days:


It's a potent symbol of an unfortunate trend on the East Side: general opposition to the presence of UWM students.

Columbia-St. Mary's is moving out of the multi-building hospital complex that stands across the street from UWM's landlocked and desparately overcrowded campus. The conclusion is logical: UWM should take it over and use it for dorms and classroom space. But homeowners in the area seem prepared to take up arms against it.

Opposing the deal is a bad, bad idea.

The first thing that one has to remember is: the University was here first. Its original incarnation was here before the neighborhood itself, and its current form was here long before most of the East Side's residents. To move to the East Side and then fight against the presence of students is counterintuitive, to say the least.

Second, UWM students drive a huge portion of the neighborhood's economy. They provide steady and reliable rent to local landlords. They support the stores, theaters, bars, clubs and restaurants which provide the area with its urbanity; their presence is the backbone of the neighborhood's street life. If the East Side is a good thing, then more students will only make it better.

Local homeowners seem to have two basic concerns: parking, and noise. Ironically, putting dorms in the old hospital will help relieve both those problems.

On cars: Students who live in dorms don't need them. Their social life is right on campus; they don't have to travel to classes or to eat. This is especially important since dorm space on campus is already so limited; a bulk of students only live in the dorms for their first year, if at all. After that, they're either living in the neighborhood or commuting in from elsewhere -- both of which tend to bring more cars into the neighborhood. UWM is already a commuter-heavy campus; anything which can reduce that is good for streets of the East Side which are already crowded with parked cars.

On noise: Putting students on campus provides them with some geographic isolation from the neighborhood. I have students partying in the alley behind my house every September, and it's not the end of the world; however, their numbers might be reduced if more of them were living on campus. Keeping students off campus is likely to increase noise in the neighorhoods; more on-campus dorms -- as well as open and reasoned dialogue between residents, students, and the university -- will reduce it.

Capping enrollment at UWM ties the hands of the instution and harms the city as a whole. It will not solve any of the existing problems between UWM and its neighborhood, and by curtailing the density of the neighborhood, it will limit the East Side's ability to reach its full potential as an urban environment. Turning the hospital campus over to the university for dorms and classrooms is the best and highest use of the land and buildings.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Tear-downs coming to the East Side?

In the last month, I've noticed three vacant lots that, though I never actually photographed or took particular notice of what was on them, definately had houses on them; in each case, I got that strange feeling that something had changed, even though I couldn't recall exactly what; I suspected they were probably just typical wood-sided gable-fronted Milwaukee houses. A careful purusal of Google Maps' satellite views of the city confirms it.

Tear-down #1 in this list was a lot north of Brady Street, on N. Warren Avenue; it came down last summer and has remained vacant since. The satellite view isn't quite clear enough to say for sure but it looks like a small house. Could be a garage, though. A parking lot stood along side it.
Vacant lot #1

Tear-down #2 is on N. Cramer Street, diagonally across from the East Side library's parking lot. Again the satellite is a little unclear but the best guess is a gabled house.
Vacant Lot #2

Tear-down #3 was a gabled house on N. Cambridge Avenue, where it twists and turns to meet E. Irving Place. Ceasar's Park and the North Avenue Dam are right around the corner.
Vacant Lot #3

Tear-down #4 was also a gabled house; it stood on Humbolt, just north of the laundromat on Brady Street.
Vacant Lot #4

Is this enough to constitute a trend? Combined with at least one other demolition on Brady Street last year, I'd say... probably. Should East Siders start worrying about the character of their blocks, of their neighborhood? Tear-downs are the next logical step once all the vacant land is filled up, and often before it's filled up.

I'm not opposed to new construction, and I'm all for increased density, but I can't help twitching when hundred-year-old houses get knocked down.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Milwaukee Mid-Century: 2 on North Avenue

Continuing the string of Mid-Century Mod buildings I've been posting on my other blog...
Continental Savings Bank, Milwaukee The blue brick building, Milwaukee

These two are very symptomatic of the inattention paid to Mid-Century Modernism in this day and age. Five years ago when I moved here I wouldn't have given either one a second glance. Now I look and see unique, creative designs, beautiful details, delightful colors and materials. They're quiet and unobtrusive until you look closer... well, as unobstrusive as a blue building can be, anyway.

The Continental Savings Bank features a grand corner entrance that wonderfully acknowledges its location on a major East Side intersection with a wall of rough rounded stones, which curves away to provide a mini-plaza space. Something once stood in front of the entry -- a fountain, perhaps, or a bench and flagpole. Sharp details include the hyper-stylized door pulls, the glazed brick logo on the west side of the building, the limestone cornerstone, and the triple mullions at the windows.

Continental Savings Bank, Milwaukee Continental Savings Bank, Milwaukee

A block to the east stands a building sheathed with a distinctive blue brick; it was until recently the Prospect Medical Clinic. The blue brick building lacks the grand statements of the bank, but the unusual brick and the offset window patterns on the east and west walls make it noteworthy. Silver racing stripes form decorative patterns on several of the first floor windows and doors.

Blue brick Blue brick with door

With the clinic's closure (perhaps due to the consolidation of Columbia St. Mary's across the street), a sign has appeared on the building advertising the land as being available for redevelopment. With a long-vacant gas station right next door and a parking lot behind, there is a strong chance the building's future is in doubt. Developers are no doubt salivating over the prospect of combining all three parcels and replacing them with a single large building in this lucrative location.

Big cities don't need big roads.

Milwaukee loves its big streets.

The little downtown street where I sometimes park runs for only 3 blocks, ending at the Performing Arts Center on one end and the new McKinley Avenue on the other. Yet it's wide enough for parking on both sides and at least 3 lanes of traffic. Why's it gotta be so huge?

McKinley Avenue is an egregious offender in this regard -- and doubley so because of its origins. It sprang up to replace the demolished Park East Freeway, a reduntant, dead-end highway that was blissfully removed in 2002. Milwaukee's then-mayor John Norquist saw the grand urban opportunity presented by freeing up a 16-acre chunk of land right next to downtown, and after some years of effort was able to get taken out. The plan is to turn this land into a continuation of downtown's urban, pedestrian-friendly environment.

Why, then, the first step was to run in a freeway-width "avenue" is somewhat baffling. When it meets Water Street -- Milwaukee's biggest bar district -- it is 6 lanes wide. Cars fresh off the highways, reacting naturally to the preponderance of space, come roaring in from the west at fifty or more miles per hour. Woe betide the pedestrian who must cross this vast gulf of concrete. You better run fast!

Let me reiterate a fact in that last paragraph: drivers will set their own speed not based on posted speed limits, but on how fast they feel they can safely drive. Build a wider road, and you will get faster traffic. Line a road with parallel parking and a bike lane, and you will get slower traffic.

Another oddly wide street is the short stretch of North Avenue between the reservoir and the river, just west of the East Side. For some reason, after a lengthy run as a mostly 1-lane road runnning through a dense residential area, the road widens to two lanes just west of Humbolt. Then it widens still further as it runs down the hill and across the river:

Drivers, of course, go roaring down the hill at near-freeway speeds.... only to abruptly hit the breaks after crossing the river, where the road (back down to one lane) is narrowed by a traffic-calming island, forcing drivers to slow down to more pedestrian friendly speeds as they enter North Ave's busy bar district.

Why they didn't just make a left turn lane at Humbolt and keep the road at one lane with parking is beyond me.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Village Ghetto Land

On the way home this afternoon, I routed through lower NW Milwaukee -- up 42nd Street to Capital, then south and east on side streets. Some thoughts:

- Is NW Milwaukee in a state comparable to St. Louis's north side 30 years ago? It's almost entirely black, appears poor, and is teaming with people hanging out on the streets. Based on my rapid windshield observations, there seem to be the social networks that pervade functional urban areas, but like St. Louis in 1970, crime is pervasive and decay is spreading. I saw two fresh burnouts. I'm starting to notice more abandoned buildings. It took me a long time to recognize these areas as a ghetto, but they really are, even if they lack the abject abandonment that marks so many St. Louis neighborhoods.

- How can such a vast area, such a large *population*, go so totally unnoticed by *everyone*? How can such vast stretches of decay be allowed to continue? How can land so close to the rising values at the city core be allowed to crumble? How can such incredible concentrations of poverty be allowed to persist?

- I passed by what appeared to be a major crime scene. A LOT of cops were gathered around some house on a side street, lots of vans and cars with lights flashing. A scattered crowd was watching from the surrounding blocks. Around the corner, a policeman was restraining a young man by the arm.

Gina used to tell me tales of listening to the police scanner at night and hearing innumerable "shots fired" reports from the neighborhoods west of Hampton. Moriya reports that after nearly being assaulted by a crazy drunk dude in broad daylight, and after having shots fired on her block at night, the police still didn't show up.

We can launch space shuttles into orbit and bring them back to Earth, but we can't tame our own cities. We can't do anything about people who have so devalued life that they will kill someone in a moment of passion. We can't provide an environment, physical and cultural, that makes these people realize how damaging their own actions are to themselves and everyone around them. We can't instill hope in thousands upon thousands of city residents.

And 95% of America either doesn't know or doesn't give a shit.

I'm not even sure if it's really conscionable to be worrying about architecture in these neighborhoods when such gross poverty is on the loose. Fighting that poverty is the only hope for the thousands of declining buildings in those neighborhoods, but it's such an enormous web of entangled causes and effects I barely know how to start grasping it, let alone finding solutions.

All I know is, if Milwaukee doesn't want its lower northwestern reaches to end up looking like St. Louis Place, somebody -- a lot of somebodies -- better start doing something soon.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Farewell Sentry's

Sentry's Foods on N. Oakland is closed.

I'll miss the convenience of it. It was a five minute walk from my front door, mine and thousands of others in the blocks around me. There are other options, including a corner store right on our block, but nothing as close, cheap, and large.

I can't say I'll miss the store itself all that much. It was a 1950s-era building which probably wasn't terribly glamorous when new, and today is a beat-up, remuddled mess in need of a major overhaul. The selection was so-so, the produce was lacking, and the parking lot was a visual blight on the neighborhood.

The Sentry and its vacant adjoining neighbor will be torn down. The Walgreens that is currently 2 blocks south will put up a new building on Sentry's parking lot, with apartments on top. A parking lot will replace Sentry's location. Some sort of deli is apparently taking Walgreen's old location.

It's kind of a lateral move for the neighborhood, at best. With a Subway's and a Cousin's on opposite corners, we've already got a source for cheap sub sandwiches. We've already got a fine Walgreens. The addition of new apartments is a good thing in a neighborhood that is flooded with students, as is removing a surface parking lot. But unless the new building is large enough to reach all the way to the Cousin's building at Oakland, it will just mean the surface parking gets shuffled around. Hopefully Walgreens' inevitable surface lot will be as small and unobtrusive as their current one.

East Side Overview

Having lived nearly 6 years in Milwaukee, I am firmly convinced that my East Side neighborhood is the finest in the city.

It is the most walkable, the most historically intact, the most charming, has the most active streets, and is one of the few places in town where you can get by without a car relatively easy (not that I've done the latter.)

It's also a safe neighborhood. Yes, we have some crime. My car's been broken into 3 times in the last two years (a result of parking it in a dark alley spot. We put up a motion sensor light and nobody's touched it since... knock on wood.) There have been hold-ups, rapes, even a murder a couple of years back. But those are outstanding incidents precisely because they are so rare. Our crime is generated by outsiders. The worst offenses from people living here are drunken college students knocking over your trash can late at night.

The East Side is certainly a haven for college students, and anyone who doesn't realize this and accept it right from the start is a goddamn fool. The city's largest university is located here, and thousands of students flood the neighborhood's prolific rental housing every fall. Far from being the detriment that some people make them out to be, these students are the lifeblood of this neighborhood. They give it the biggest portion of its pulse and vigor. They sustain its nightlife, they support the bars and restaurants and the two (three until recently) movie theaters, they bring life to the sidewalks and parks. Without them, the East Side would be as dull as Shorewood, the lovely but uninspiring well-to-do inner suburb to our north.

But certain residents, and in particular our Alderman Michael D'Amato, seem to view the student population as a nuisance at best, and perhaps an actual threat. I have heard more than once that D'Amato simply won't talk to students about their concerns. He has supported parking measures that range from the obnoxious to the Draconian, the most absurd of which is the requirement that cars on the street must be moved once every 24 hours. This rule is city-wide, actually, but nowhere is it more vigorously enforced than the East Side. When I lived a block away from campus, I had to make a daily trek past my parked car to wipe off the chalk marks which the city's fleet of parking checkers leave on tires to track vehicle movement.

But these are minor concerns in the grand scheme of things. The East Side is a wonderful place, and located less than a mile from the lakefront to boot. I can't imagine living anywhere else in this town.