An Entertainment Mall Is Not What Downtown Needs

July 2, 2015

An Open Letter to Department of City Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux

You are promoting the Milwaukee Bucks’ plan for a bigger-is-better “entertainment mall.” Mayor Tom Barrett insists we can’t have too many downtown bars and restaurants, as long as the distance from each venue is walkable. While conventional wisdom  holds  that clusters of restaurants succeed better than standalones, that applies to gradual expansion, not overnight flooding of a market.

The Bucks have proposed almost seven acres of entertainment floor space in their mall. That’s in addition to the many bars and restaurants to be built inside their arena. A multi-story, block-long “bar mall” would likely double the amount of existing food-and-drink venues in the area, and almost certainly displace more than a few fine establishments.

You’ve expressed confidence that an increasing downtown-population will expand demand for all the additional watering holes. Have you given thought to the danger of the area getting over-served? Economists assert that it’s indeed a problem to crowd too many hospitality options into one place. Milwaukee is not Las Vegas—speculatively building more pubs will not suddenly lure more patrons, unless tourist buses from the suburbs are part of the marketing plan.

If the city approves this deal, it will subsidize a for-profit enterprise with tens of millions of dollars at the expense of businesses that have succeeded on their own. It will green-light a pro-sports cartel’s ambitions while leaving hometown hot spots in the lurch. It’s the NBA’s mandate to create entertainment monopolies adjacent to their arenas—to pocket every discretionary dollar possible. However, Milwaukeeans are not obliged to subsidize both an arena—and an NBA bar mall.

Chain establishments in the NBA/Bucks’ mall would compete toe-to-toe with about 40 property-tax-paying businesses on Old World Third Street and Water Street. There will be winners and losers.

In any case, taxpayers will lose in this survival-of-the-fittest, government-funded private scheme. If this mall, with 75-percent national franchises (according to the Bucks), eventually flounders or fails, it might first drive out authentic locally-owned venues. Downtown doesn’t need another white-elephant mall, just blocks from the half-empty Grand Avenue Mall, and newly shuttered doors on Water and Third streets.

Cities with defunct entertainment malls include Minneapolis and Memphis. Such “McDevelopments” have also struggled or cycled through bankruptcy in other cities, including Kansas City, Mo. and Glendale, Ariz.

Urban planner Nathaniel Hood catalogs these malls’ pitfalls. He says that by focusing solely on entertainment, these monocultures limit diverse commerce and discourage residential development. Also, one sinking ship can bring down a whole fleet. Most of all, formulaic blandness gets old fast, especially to suburbanites heading downtown for a good time. (http://goo.gl/EaZnD1)

In contrast, smaller, older buildings, like those on Third and Water streets, reliably lend themselves to venues with character. Renowned urban planners Daniel Campo and Brent Ryan consider the Water Street District one of the most successful naturally-occurring entertainment zones in the country. Those local businesses have revitalized downtown—without taxpayer subsidies. (http://goo.gl/QKfMEq)

Moving forward, Milwaukee’s Convention and Arena District needs development that serves more than just entertainment. After a new arena is built, and the Bradley Center is demolished, pursue the redevelopment of the Bradley Center site with food and drink and varied retail options for visitors, convention-goers, and downtown residents, workers and students. Do not demolish, for no good reason, the fully functional Fourth Street parking garage and give away the site to the Bucks for their “Coals to Newcastle” bar mall. That eliminates the need to build a new parking lot for the Bucks a couple blocks north, an unbelievable $35-million-dollar waste of tax dollars, and topping that profligacy by then sharing half the parking revenue with the Bucks! This is all fiscal folly.

Empty storefronts on Fourth Street could be enlivened with new restaurants. Let’s spread the cheer all through downtown by day and night. Columbus, Ohio’s much-touted Arena District has many clubs and restaurants interspersed throughout a mixed-use neighborhood—not a glitzy entertainment mall trying hard to be a destination.

Commissioner Marcoux, Milwaukee is at a pivotal moment. We need big-picture planning that finally knits together Westown, not piecemeal development that appeases NBA owners. Please rethink the Bucks’ bar mall notion. It would needlessly hand over, and raze, a tiptop city parking facility, forgo millions in public revenue, and jeopardize two thriving business districts, all to satisfy demands by the Bucks and NBA to increase their “revenue streams.” The unintended consequences of this ill-advised, subsidized mall could wreak havoc for decades.

We can build a new arena without making the Bucks’ owners the master developers of downtown. Thoughtful planning and entrepreneurial diversity has already produced dynamic redevelopment. That’s why downtown is on the move. Milwaukee needs to build on those successes by engaging and serving the whole community.

Commissioner Marcoux, the very idea of this disruptive arena annex is ridiculous. It’s an unsophisticated attempt to siphon off nearby beverage business. Don’t mess with Milwaukee’s success!

Virginia Small
Milwaukee

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