Should Miller Park have been built downtown?

August 8, 2012 at 6:52 pm

I just attended my second Milwaukee Brewers baseball game of the summer, and as we left the park, I couldn’t help but think about how different Miller Park would be if it were built downtown.

Miller Park as it exists today was completed in April 2001 after about 5 years of construction, replacing the old County Stadium in Milwaukee. The stadium itself is large, functional, and very aesthetically-pleasing. What I feel does not work about the stadium is its parking lot and location.

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As you can see in the image above, a quick look at Google Maps using satellite view (with scales constant), Miller Park’s parking lots take up a lot of land: at least 6 times the park’s own size. An additional parking lot, located at the top of the first image, is not even fully pictured. This sprawling parking complex fills up during games, often with fans tailgating hours before. While I realize that tailgating is a fun activity, the costs of allowing this are exorbitant and, as it turns out, don’t really benefit much of the surrounding businesses. For a comparison, look at the second image above, which is my university (UW-Milwaukee) and the surrounding neighborhood, which houses thousands of students and provides everything necessary for quotidien life.

Miller Park is situated at the western end of the Menomonee Valley, a former brownfield and recently-developed area with many large firms that have provided many jobs for the area, which is less than 10 minutes driving from Milwaukee’s downtown. Just to the south of Miller Park is residential housing and a commercial strip along Miller Park Way. There are relatively few connections to the park aside from the freeway to the north, Miller Park Way to the south, and the single road of the Menomonee Valley to the east. There are no pedestrian routes to the park, with the exception of the Hank Aaron State Trail, which is more suited for bicycles.

The lack of roads connecting to these parkings lots creates a traffic headache at the end of every game. What is equally frustrating is the lack of public transportation serving the stadium. While Milwaukee has a relatively comprehensive bus network, it is nonetheless slow and does not effectively serve more than a few adjacent neighborhoods without connections – a mixture that makes driving the preferred method of getting to and from the park.

There is a railroad right-of-way that runs to the north end of the Menomonee Valley and then turns north just east of Miller Park. I sometimes question, with the amount of private and public money that was poured into the construction of this stadium, why there was no investment in a light rail line or even a dedicated busway along this corridor, which runs directly into downtown and continues southbound along some dense neighborhoods and could have eventually become the KRM line, connecting to Chicago. This line could have connected the stadium with downtown, possibly offloading the high demand for parking around the stadium, and could have eased the traffic nightmare that occurs at the end of every game by dispersing the traffic to remote parking lots or encouraging carpooling.

Of course, the entire situation with parking and transportation could have been avoided by building downtown. In the third image above is Wrigley Field in Chicago, an island in a sea of bars, restaurants, and residential development. Anyone who has been to a Cubs game or even been around the area during and after a Cubs game knows that the area becomes very congested. But at least  the congestion is mitigated by the several transportation choices Chicago offers: the Red Line ‘L’ at Addison, the #22 Clark bus, the #(X)80 Irving Park (Express) bus just north of Wrigley Field (connecting to Metra trains running into some of the most populated northwest suburbs – these trains routinely fill up and require passengers to stand on game days), and other east-west buses. Milwaukee offers relatively few buses to and from Miller Park, buses that become subject to the same traffic that thousands of departing cars cause. The neighborhood around Wrigley also offers bars and restaurants to entertain visitors before and after games – activity largely lacking at Brewers games.

Which brings me to another point: Economic activity. Around Miller Park, there are no restaurants that are reachable by foot. None, with the exception of the TGI Friday’s inside the stadium. You could always stop at Chili’s, Culver’s, or your standard suburban-strip fast food joint before the game, but there is nothing around the stadium. If you want to eat before a game, you usually bring your own food. While many people have touted Miller Park’s success as an economic catalyst, it certainly doesn’t seem to have done much around the area. Now look at Wrigley Field, which has an entire neighborhood named “Wrigleyville” surrounding it, complete with a plethora of bars, restaurants, and stores. It goes without saying that many of these establishments would not exist without Cubs games, and there is much more economic activity and employment created by one entertainment venue in a dense urban neighborhood – whereas Brewers games usually start with a trip to the grocery store and may end at a bar or restaurant elsewhere in Milwaukee, establishments that would likely exist with or without Miller Park.

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To create a similar effect in Milwaukee I thought of the former site of the Park East Freeway in downtown Milwaukee. There is currently construction of a new development, The Brewery, at the former site of the Pabst Brewery. Just to the east of this development sits one empty plot of land and a parking lot. At its current size, Miller Park would fit in these two plots of land! See the image above for a visual of how this would fit in Milwaukee’s downtown; the Brewery development is just to the west, starting near the roundabout. The stadium would also be directly to the north of two athletic arenas (one, the Bradley Center, is the home of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team), meaning that restaurants, bars, and shops that would inevitably spring up in this area of downtown would be able to attract a year-round clientele. The site is also just off of a freeway and located near the proposed future expansion of the Milwaukee Streetcar line (yet to be constructed). I understand that some would still want to drive to the stadium, but I assume the elasticity of demand for Brewers tickets to be relatively low and the elasticity of demand for parking to be relatively high, meaning that the market for parking will sort itself out (people willing to pay for parking close to the stadium will pay; others will park farther away, park at a Park & Ride and take a Freeway Flyer bus, or use other means such as carpooling).

It gives someone like myself, an aspiring planner, a headache to think of the success stories I’ve read about “Palaces for the People” (to cite Alexander Garvin of American Cities: What Works, What Doesn’t [amazon]). A great example of what doesn’t work is putting a large sports stadium so far away from people and isolating it in a sea of parking and high-capacity roads that it starves the area of economic boosts. Milwaukee’s downtown is quiet enough and in desperate need of new retail and restaurants since the Grand Avenue Mall died at a young age an indeterminable amount of years ago.

A downtown baseball stadium would certainly have brought such economic activity to the area, at the same time reducing traffic around the stadium and the environmental effects of a great incentive to drive. I can only hope that in the next construction of this stadium, and for stadiums in similar locations around the country, officials and the private sector think more intuitively about the importance of the location of such entertainment venues.