Road Trip Milwaukee: What to do with a whole neighborhood full of crappy old factories.

Milwaukee might be the one Great Lakes city that most closely resembles Buffalo. Both cities are former industrial hubs. Both suffered precipitous decline and both sit in the orbit of prosperous mega cities. Milwaukee is a slightly larger metro than Buffalo at 1.7 million (MSA) to Buffalo’s 1.2 million (MSA – plus another 400K nearby Canadians). Milwaukee was built with less wealth than Buffalo and as such lacks some of the historic architectural elegance of Buffalo. However it currently outstrips Buffalo’s annual economy by about 50%.  Milwaukee has an impressive 14 Fortune 1000 companies with Buffalo only logging 3 or 4.  These stats give Milwaukee a decided financial advantage when planning the rebirth of the city.  Recent mega Milwaukee mega projects include a new retractable roof baseball stadium, an impressive Harley Davidson museum and $100M expansion of its art museum designed by star architect Santiago Calatrava.  
Milwaukee has not leaned on these major projects alone to draw people back into the city however.  Being the largest municipality in Wisconsin the city has the ability to control its own destiny in a way that Buffalo does not.  It also has a record of voting in effective and forward looking political leadership in recent years.  For example, recent mayor John Norquist was instrumental in having a portion of a downtown highway removed.  He is now head of the Congress for the New Urbanism.  His tenure was marked by some controversy but also by a major boom in downtown living.  
Part of that boom occurred in a neighborhood known as the Historic Third Ward.  This neighborhood is made up of a dense cluster of very old warehouse and factory buildings. Some people might label them “crappy old buildings”.  This collection of crappy old buildings was in a steep decline about two decades ago as industry left the city with many empty buildings remaining behind.  The neighborhood was never designed as a residential place and it was separated from nearby downtown by a highway. Once industry was gone it was very much like a ghost town in this part of the city.  It is also bordered by an industrial river not unlike the Buffalo River.  As decline set in several buildings were demolished for parking.  
Luckily many buildings survived the onslaught until people with foresight pushed for investment and change.  The city invested in new street-scapes, a major new river walk, and a public market (which is mobbed with people seemingly all the time).  The neighborhood was also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Starting in the 80’s buildings began to get new investment and a neighborhood group of businesses pushed for change.  Investment increased dramatically in the 90’s and into the 2000s and has expanded into construction of major new buildings which compliment the renovations.  In recent years renovations and new building projects have spread into the adjacent 5th ward as well.  
Today the old 3rd ward is a vibrant popular neighborhood filled with highly paid professionals and many many successful businesses including about 100 stores and restaurants and hundreds more creative companies.  It is considered the place to shop for fashion in the Milwaukee area.  Based on what I have seen in Milwaukee and many other cities I would say that “crappy old factory buildings” are actually only crappy if they are treated in a crappy way.   When their real value is tapped into they can become tremendous assets and can actually encourage developers to fill in the “crappy old parking lots” with shiny new buildings. Buffalo has unfortunately removed all of its neighborhoods that resembled the Old Third Ward leaving only scattered remnants in favor of massive parking lots.  These remnants can still be powerful tools in attracting people to the city because of the unique and beautiful space that can be created within them. Parking and “temporary” shovel ready sites have little power in bringing people back into cities.  Successful cities across the country are recognizing the power of historic buildings and especially these big old industrial buildings.  Its not about saving everything.  It is about saving what is left.  Mid century urban renewal thinking has to be expunged from Buffalo if it its going to be competitive going forward.  
Images from Google Maps

About the author  ⁄ david steele

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