Build A Better Bay View — debut column

July 5, 2016

By Christopher Miller

This month we debut “Build A Better Bay View,” a new column by Christopher Miller. The column title, which the author suggested, references the slogan painted on the north wall of the former Faust Music Building that read For A Stronger Bay View. — Editor

HSMALL Christopher Millerow do we build a better Bay View? It’s time to discuss how we can work together to manage change in our community. Recently the Kinnickinnic Avenue Bid (Business Improvement District #44) completed its visioning process that engaged the neighborhood in sharing ideas about what the KK BID could become and to solicit feedback about what the BID could be doing to improve the KK shopping corridor.

This process surfaced ongoing concerns amongst neighbors about the size and scale of new buildings in Bay View, especially, but not exclusively, along Kinnickinnic Avenue. Many who attended the visioning meetings wanted to create a forum for ongoing work to preserve the community’s special features — historical buildings, urban form, awesome people, and engaged community — that make Bay View a unique place to live, and a desirable place to construct new buildings.

It was perhaps not surprising that these issues came up because they were also a significant part of the recently concluded District 14 Alderic* race. In that campaign, both candidates reviewed a series of recent projects, built or not-yet built, including, the Teachtown project at the former Dover Street School site, the mixed-use development at the former Faust Music site, the development proposal for the At Random site, and the Dwell building on Kinnickinnic at Conway. The discussion highlighted the critical role that the District 14 alder plays in courting businesses, working with builders, and keeping the community informed about possible developments and design proposals.

While there was a great divergence in aesthetic opinion, virtually everyone agreed that moving forward, public participation in the approval process and public input on design proposals would benefit everyone. Ald. Zielinski reiterated his oft-repeated vow that constituent opinion would determine the stance he takes towards proposed construction projects.

The benefits and challenges of change are clear. In the past decade, a thriving creative community and a fabulous dining and nightlife scene came together through the work of countless small business owners, artists, and community patrons. More residential developments soon allowed people to follow in ever-greater numbers, bringing increased housing costs and higher tax bills. Slowly but surely one generation of Bay View is being replaced by another in a process that is not always smooth. But even in the midst of this revival, there are still empty storefronts and pockets of crime.

As noted, the BID’s visioning process revealed that Bay View’s residents want to be engaged in shaping the future of our neighborhood. But because so much has changed over the past decade, and so many familiar landmarks have disappeared, many folks are also concerned about the pace and scope of future change.

What’s just as clear is that there is not yet a consensus about what sort of place Bay View should be, and absent big community discussions about these issues, it’s quite possible that we’ll continue to wander along merely reacting to project after project. Without a vision, the future will just happen to us.

But just what is Bay View? And what does it want to be when it grows up?

Perhaps most importantly, how will we decide?

Currently, we’ve fallen into the trap of being for or against something called “development” as if our only choices are to build whatever someone proposes, or to ban it and preserve things the way they are now. But development is a rather insulting way to frame the entire discussion, and a peculiarly American one at that.

Bay View has been incorporated as a political entity for nearly 150 years, so there’s no possible way anyone can claim that it’s “undeveloped.” Bay View has been built and rebuilt so many times that most of us don’t even know what the intervening versions looked like! We wiped Deer Creek off the map, built and tore down an iron mill, filled in and dug out new paths for rivers, and replaced a rail line with a highway and a bike path. So step one is that we have to step outside the “development” frame.

You can’t be for or against development here; it happened a long time ago, and it will continue to happen.

The question is: What will it look like? What version of change will we choose?

Visions of successful neighborhoods are manifold, and they involve many different competing and overlapping interests and concerns. We have many views about aesthetics, economics, and fairness and equity, and also about diversity of residents, shopping opportunities, and modes of transportation. Each of these holds a different level of appeal to different folks; one person’s vision won’t look like another’s. So any discussion about vision has to take that into account and allow for those who hold the different bundles to have their say, to be heard, and to shape the direction events ultimately take.

That doesn’t mean we should merely move forward by “averaging” everyone’s opinion, or that we strive to make everyone happy. Leadership and shared decision-making cannot be expressed as a simple math problem where we calculate the sum of the individual responses and declare a winner. It involves setting priorities, making choices, and sometimes having difficult conversations with those who won’t be getting their way.

None of this will happen unless we intentionally build a space where individual decisions can be considered in a bigger context. As we consider a specific proposal, its impact on those who live nearby must be considered. But we cannot forget buildings and streetscapes become part of our shared environment and are something that everyone must look at and live with over a long period of time. We need to consider both of these viewpoints.

The KK BID rightly sought community involvement in shaping its own activities and plans for the future. In other cases, we’ve seen that public discourse can, in fact, shape the kinds of structures that are ultimately built in Bay View. It’s important, however, that those processes are not captured by one specific vision of what urban living looks like. Our shared vision must emerge from our individual and collective experiences if our goal is to preserve what people love.

So, moving forward, let’s agree that Bay View is a desirable place. Why do people want to be here? Because of the amazing work its residents do every day creating a community of caring, engaged folks dedicated to their neighborhood. That energy — the individual and collective decisions and actions that thousands of Bay Viewers make every day — is what will build a better Bay View.

Each month, I hope to use this column to explore a specific proposal or concept and to engage in a discussion with folks who have different takes. Check back to see what happens next!

By the way, who is planning that 150th anniversary party in 2029?

*Alderic is a word coined by Miller to replace aldermanic. It is his preferred term, as it is gender neutral.

Christopher Miller has lived in Bay View since 2010 and has been on the board of the Bay View Neighborhood Association, working to connect neighbors for a better Bay View, since 2013.  You can contact him at BuildABetterBV@bayviewcompass.com.

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