Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Park Avenue Extension

Urban Ecology Center

Along the East Side bike path, there's construction happening alongside the Urban Ecology Center. The project is a bridge extension of Park Avenue, carrying it across the bike trail to a vacant lot on its west side.

Urban Ecology Center
Click for full-size image.

A sign alongside the construction site explains in great detail what's happening and why -- an admirable move, considering that many construction sites offer zero information about what they're erecting. The text is reproduced on the Urban Ecology Center's web site.

View from the tower

The purpose of the extension is to provide access to the empty lot pictured above, which will be transformed into a "green" 55-car parking lot to serve the park and the Center. No word on what the "green" portion entails, but as a project being driven by the Urban Ecology Center, it's bound to be something good. And an additional connection across the bike path can only help the western portion of Riverside Park become more integrated with the rest of the neighborhood, as well as bring more users into what is currently a beautiful but somewhat isolated section of the park.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Transit for Milwaukee

Noticed a flyer on a bus stop this afternoon: The Milwaukee Transit Riders Union will be holding its first public meeting on Saturday, April 28 at 10:00AM at the East Library. They have some lofty and noble goals, which I wish them luck in achieving.

For me, the crux of MCTS's problem is infrequent, irregular service. When I first started working downtown, I tried taking the bus from the East Side. I'd stand outside in the freezing cold of wintertime, often waiting 15 or 20 minutes for a bus to show up -- a time during which I could easily have driven there.

In the end, I decided that if I was going to freeze my tail off for 20 minutes, I might as well be where I'm going when it's done. I started biking instead. Now I bike most of the time, drive when it's raining or below 15 degrees, and ride the bus only when it's snowing.

People would sometimes tell me, oh, you should check the schedule!

Well, no. Even if the buses actually adhered to a schedule (and in all my experience, they do no such thing), I should not have to check a schedule. I should walk out to the stop, wait a few short minutes, and have a bus arrive. That's how a functional transit system works.

You should never have to wait more than ten minutes for a bus -- and that's only if you were a block from the bus stop when the last bus went by. Anything more is an absurd imposition on your schedule, a waste of your time. MCTS would do well to consider that.

Urban Gas Station

I have passed this thing at 12th and Highland a few times, and every time I'm struck by it:

Urban gas station

It's an urban gas station.

Architecturally, it's no great shakes, though it's nice enough: clad in brick, with a second tone used to differentiate the base, and a small raised tower to mark the corner (this is about the only architectural gesture that owners can afford anymore, it seems.)

The building portion conforms to the most basic rules of the urban game: it's more than one story. It's compact. It's built out to the street edge. And even the pumping station shelter is fairly compact and efficient. Its driveways break the sidewalk once on each side.

Given the battered environment it stands in, the "urban" portion is a bit of an anomaly. It has a few urban-style neighbors to its west, but the streets around here have suffered great abuse at the hands of urban renewal and traffic engineering. Further westward, it feels like suburbia: empty and placeless. To the east, amid more suburban redevelopment, huge swaths of land have been blasted away by the Interstate.

But this one little business has taken one remarkable step towards maintaining a sense of place and location with this building that plays by the right rules.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

MacArthur Square

From Whitney Gould's column, planning to rework MacArthur Square.

Never heard of MacArthur Square? Not surprising. Cast your mind along 6th Street, along the western edge of downtown. Notice a void in your spatial memory around the Milwaukee County Courthouse? That's MacArthur Square, a huge open plaza atop a parking garage -- a plaza that nobody uses.

Downtown Milwaukee

You can see it at the bottom. Notice how there's hardly any people there, despite it being a beautiful, temperate summer day.

In a nutshell, I agree with most of the ideas in the article. The plaza's far, far bigger than it needs to be, if it needs to be there at all. It's a product of City Beautiful thinking, a movement reacting to what was then an overcrowded and dirty urban environment, one starved for open space. It was brought to reality in an age where automobiles had come to dominate and where the buildings lining it were no longer the ennobling, ornate Beaux Arts structures envisioned by the likes of Daniel Burham.

Today, we're stuck with so much open space we scarcely realize how much of it there is. Yet we continue to venerate it. Call MacArthur Square "green space" and we'll be lucky to ever get rid of it. "Green space" is not automatically good; in overabundance, it is antithetical and damaging to the city.

Kill the plaza. Put the street grid back in place. Raise up some new buildings. Maybe create a much smaller open space, scaled for people instead of aerial views. Reskin --

Milwaukee State Office Building

--- wait.

That's the "bland" building they want to reskin?? Why?! It's a symphony of shadows and light, a handsome work of concrete Brutalism with some classic Mid-Century Modern details. Leave it alone! The money spent on a purely aesthetic reworking of this building could be put to far better use elsewhere.

Anyway, a reskin could end up looking like.... okay, professional interests keep me from pointing any fingers, but let's just say a contemporary reskinning is likely to give you a much better example of "bland" than this brawny work of Modernism.

Milwaukee State Office Building

The Useless Circle

I've never quite understood the point of the traffic circle at the south end of the 6th Street Viaduct.

A waste of space

It's a vast space, designed to regulate traffic between the moderately busy 6th Street (an important surface connection between downtown and south city) and... a few unremarkable side streets. And that's it.

To accomplish this pedestrian feat, it devours an entire city block's worth of land:

Milwaukee Traffic Circle

Now maybe there's something going on underground that I'm not aware of, sewer lines or utilities or unstable soils or sacred Indian burial grounds, but it sure seems to me like 6th Street could've just continued straight off the viaduct.

I've likewise never understood people's fascination with traffic circles. In my experience (mostly in New Jersey), they're difficult to navigate, and harrowing for a first-time traveller. There's no way of knowing what lane you need to be in till you're already past where you wanted to go, and your circular path makes it that much harder to check behind you for someone in the lane to your right.

More to the point, the 6th Street roundabout was completely unnecessary. None of the other streets at this intersection have even moderate volumes of traffic. They could have been terminated with stop signs with no impact on traffic flow. 6th Street only get really busy at rush hour, as downtown workers use it as a longcut to the Interstate a few blocks south. It provides a very poor termination to a bridge that otherwise is all about making connections: downtown to the Menomonee Valley to the south side.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation cites a study claiming that roundabouts reduce pedestrian-vehicle accidents. Well, gee, ya don't think that could maybe be because nobody in their right mind would cross this thing on foot?! Seriously. The cold hard fact is, the Menomonee Valley is over half a mile across, and even with the beautiful new 6th Street Bridge, it's a long, lonely walk from downtown to the south side. Not many people take it on, even on the nicest of days.

This might not seem worth quibbling over, but the useless circle is taking up an entire city block on the edge of one of the most urban areas of the city. That's a block that should have buildings on it, not grass and concrete. Contrary to what traffic engineers might have you believe, there are more important things than moving traffic swiftly through town, and not sacrificing entire city blocks to auto traffic is one of them.