Alterra’s sustainable design redefines Bay View’s gateway
September 1, 2012
Editor’s Note: We asked Bay View resident Jeffrey Zimmerman to share his perspectives and observations of the new Alterra Café and Bakery since his academic specialty is Geography and Urban Planning. If you follow him on Facebook, you already know he’s deeply engaged in these fields. The photographs of the new building that he posted on Facebook are what inspired us to request him to write about the development.
—photos Jeffrey Zimmerman
Changes to Bay View’s premier commercial district—intersection of Kinnickinnic, Howell, and Lincoln avenues—over the past two decades is nothing less than dramatic. What was until the late 1990s a quiet and declining retail strip has been transformed into a bustling and vibrant urban center, full of pedestrians, sidewalk cafes, and dozens of other new businesses.
The completion of the new Bay View Alterra Café and Bakery in August represents a brilliant piece of this success story that began a little over a decade ago with the opening of Café Lulu in 2001.
Alterra operates multiple cafes in Metro-Milwaukee, admired by many for their excellent coffee and homey spaces. Some, like the café in Riverwest, 2999 N. Humboldt Blvd., have jump-started new life in their neighborhoods. But at the new Bay View Café, Alterra has upped the ante considerably. The owner and architect found a way to successfully marry sustainable building practices with one of the most innovative pedestrian-friendly designs in the entire region.
The new building, 2301 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., designed by Milwaukee-based architectural firm Kubala Washatko, incorporates multiple, leading-edge sustainable practices in its design.
A good share of the new building consists of materials that were recycled or repurposed. Most Bay View residents will remember the Maritime Savings Bank building that formerly occupied the site, constructed at the turn of the twentieth century. That building was demolished to make way for the new café when it became clear that renovating the building was impractical, both from an economic and a structural point of view, according to Alterra co-founder Lincoln Fowler. Ghosts of the old bank building dwell in the new Alterra.
Look up in the main café area and you’ll see large wood beams, most of which were structural beams recycled from the Maritime Savings Bank building, according to Fowler. Look up carefully and you’ll spot numerous wood joints—all repurposed. Doors from the old building have been given a new life as cabinets found behind the main counter in the new café. Fowler also indicated that 80 to 90 percent of the old Maritime building was either recycled as fill or repurposed into the new Bay View structure.
Alterra and Kubala Washatko made great forward strides with the onsite water management design
that is incorporated in the new building and grounds. This is an especially significant innovation considering the ongoing problem in the Milwaukee region with MMSD’s periodic sewer discharges into Lake Michigan after heavy rain events.
Rainwater that falls on the west-facing quarter of the roof is collected in a large cistern located on the west side of the building. (It looks like a gigantic white beer can.) The rainwater is subsequently recycled and used for onsite irrigation. The rainwater that falls on the remainder of the roof is channeled into a striking water feature that follows the eastern edge of the building’s footprint. (See photo.) If rainfall is too heavy and overwhelms the water feature, it flows into a beautifully landscaped, Japanese-style, rock garden, where it is absorbed.
There is also a bioswale that collects water from the sloping awning adjacent to the outdoor seating area facing Kinnickinnic Avenue, on the east side of the building. Permeable pavers on the walkways that traverse the outdoor seating area along Kinnickinnic Avenue absorb the water, as do deep-rooted, native plants that abound throughout the grounds.
The net effect of these innovative design features is that rainwater runoff, instead of pouring into the sewer system as fast as it falls, is mitigated and slowed in its path to the water table, thus reducing the building’s negative environmental impact.
Although many other sustainable design practices were incorporated—including energy-efficiencies and an excellent use of natural light—Alterra’s greatest success is the way the new building defines and animates the pedestrian experience on the south end of Bay View’s most important commercial intersection. The former bank building did in fact define the intersection quite well in terms of its height and massing, but its façade rose abruptly from the sidewalk creating a narrow and foreboding space for pedestrians. The new building, however, has broken down the wall between public and private space by creating a series of “outdoor living rooms” that enliven the intersection immeasurably.
The Lincoln Avenue façade was pulled back from the street by about four feet, allowing for a wider sidewalk and ample space for outdoor seating. Along Kinnickinnic, a small “pocket park” with outdoor seating has been employed to create a similar effect. Working with the Department of City Development and Department of Public Works, Kubula Washatko completely reconfigured this site’s public space to include a playful bend in the sidewalk and landscaped bulb-outs (curb extensions) that neatly define on-street parking and that act as an additional physical barrier between pedestrians and the street. A new multi-modal bus shelter includes covered vertical bike racks designed to keep bicycles dry during inclement weather.
Even more innovative is the way the grounds and building design maintain a fluid transition from the public space of the sidewalk and the private space of the interior café. The outdoor seating along the Lincoln Avenue façade is elevated slightly, providing a nice sense of enclosure for those who prefer to sit outside facing one of the city’s busiest intersections. What’s more, the indoor seating nook that faces northeast is completely open to the street during warm weather. The net effect is a stunningly beautiful space where you can comfortably linger and contemplate the excitement of living in one of Milwaukee’s most dynamic neighborhoods.
Jeffrey Zimmerman is an Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater where he teaches Geography and Urban Planning. He was raised in Bay View. He returned in 2008.
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