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


Anonymous said...

I agree that MacArthur Square is underused but the inaccessible thing seems strange to me. Yes, it's inaccessible to vehicles as public squares should be. It's not hard to get to by foot, just climb some stairs. When I went to MATC, I'd often go there to spend some time in a nice quite spot free from the noise of traffic. I also agree that the freeway ramps did cut off the space from the way it originally was planned.

It seems strange to me that in this modern day and age when the battle cry is for less roads and more pedestrian access that planners such as Greenstreet call for vehicular access to a public space. The renderings show the atrocious blockage of the magnificent vista of the courthouse by, what is this? Condos?!?! I admit, that is thinking outside of the box.:sarcasm:

Gould's comments are unfathomable and sensationalist.

With few "eyes on the street," you don't feel safe here.

Well, for one thing, it's all but inaccessible.

The dank, scary parking garage beneath the square would get brightened with skylights.

If you don't feel safe next to police headquarters honey, then you better take some anti-anxiety meds. A dank, scary parking garage? Aren't they all? O'Donnell Park better come down too. Speaking of O'Donnell Park, doesn't it share most of the same problems? Inaccessability, lack of use, etc? Last time I was in the back area of the park, the only people using it were bums.

I'd like to share a little history on this space. It was planned from back in the 20s as a large area devoted to public buildings stretching down Kilbourn Avenue. Milwaukee has spent the last 80 years clearing out the private buildings for this sole purpose. In the 30s and 40s, many tenement buildings were cleared and a wide boulevard was created west of 6th street to give a beautiful vista of the courthouse. Compared to the architectural rendering, we can see the problems with the future plans.

Robert Powers said...

It looked more appealing before.

Seriously. Which of those would you rather walk past, visit, shop, live near? Me, I'd pick the one with people living in it, the one that's got some sense of scale and rhythm. After the clearance, it's just one enormous void.

I just can't agree with wiping out entire city blocks for the sake of a view. Just because the city made big mistakes 50 years ago doesn't mean we have to stick with them.

I always look to Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square as an ideal urban park, so here's a comparison:



They're surprisingly close in raw size -- I would have guessed that MacArthur was literally 4-5 times the size of Rittenhouse, but even with the outlying bits to the east, MacArthur isn't even twice as large (assuming the scale on the satellite view is correct.)

But what a difference!

Rittenhouse is surrounded by organic urban growth -- large and small buildings, some that have been there over a hundred years, others that went up just a few decades ago. They include stores, hotels, houses, apartments, institutions. And zoom in -- you can see how many people are using it. Also note how many ways in and out of the park there are -- a grand entrance at each corner, to smaller entrances along each side. It's surrounded by a bustling street grid, with traffic on all sides, but people seem to love it anyway.

MacArthur, by contrast... oh god. How do you get into it? Where are you coming from? Where are the people? Where are the paths, benches, and walls to give it a sense of human scale? Where's the population whose presence justifies the existance of this vast empty space?

And one more comparison, to preempt the argument that East Coast urban rules don't apply:

Franklin Square

It's the same size as Rittenhouse, laid out at the same time by William Penn. Today it's surrounded by an almost-highway entrance ramp, and three massive institutional buildings, including... police headquarters.

It's best known as the place where the homeless people sleep. It was true forty years ago when Jane Jacobs first wrote on American cities, and it was true 7 years ago when I lived there.

If you're going to keep vehicles out of a place, you better ensure it's got a burgeoning pedestrian population, a la State Street in Madison. Otherwise you're going to end up with an empty park, and an empty park is a dangerous one. Just 'cause the cops live next door doesn't mean they're keeping a dedicated eye on it -- I'm not even sure how many windows they have facing this direction.

(the battle cry is actually for *more* roads -- surface streets, to be exact, compact surface streets that restore and expand city grids. No smart urbanist wants to eliminate streets or vehicles. Highways, maybe, 'cause they really don't work well with the city.)

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say the city made a mistake when they cleared the area east of the courthouse. There were many reasons for it. One of the biggest reasons was that it was a serious ghetto there. Buildings were in similar shape to those found in most places of the inner city these days. The master plan for the area was pretty impressive. They were even planning on building a new city hall over there and tearing down the old one.

The big mistake was the freeway entrance and the underground parking structure that sectioned off the area. But traffic congestion at the time required it. Milwaukee was deadlocked with cars the like of which is hard to imagine today except when there is a basketball game downtown or when Summerfest is enjoying a day of high attendance.

But the planners and engineers did the best they could. The space works great for rallies or public events. That was it's main purpose and all it takes is for more events to use it for that purpose. That is an easy thing to accomplish which doesn't require a $100 million in new development.

Obviously the structure does need to be fixed due to it's age and they could put in skylights to make the Whitney Goulds of suburban Milwaukee less frightened when parking their cars. A big improvement could be made at 7th street to make it more inviting to pedestrians. Eighth street should stay buried. it would be a travesty to bring it to grade.

I don't agree with you that it is dangerous. 99.9% of criminals would rather find easy pickings far away from the police station. I don't know the stats on this area but I would bet it is the safest spot in the city.

As an engineer who makes his living off the construction of roads, I still have to say that new roads should be kept away from MacArthur Square and leave it as a pedestrian refuge. Get rid of the ugly fountain and split level design though. This place can be better designed. Ole!