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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.

Public Goods with Private Sponsorship

May 14, 2012 at 2:30 pm

One of the most interesting things I find on the homepage of New York’s new Citi Bike bicycle sharing program is the emphasis placed on its lack of public funding. It is great that the system of 10,000 bicycles spread over 600 stations is being paid for by the private sector… but at a cost.

New York’s Citi Bikes, covered with advertising

Milwaukee County bus literally wrapped in advertising

I understand that public transportation agencies have had difficulties with funding, but they shouldn’t go to such lengths to make some money. Even recently riding the L in Chicago makes me feel bombarded with advertisements: The Fullerton and Belmont stops are covered in advertisements for some sort of laundry detergent. These ads are on the trains, on the stairways, on the support poles, and even play on the station televisions. I don’t believe that transportation users should be bombarded with these advertisements so often.

Paris’ Vélib bikes and payment station – no advertising

I understand as well that bicycle sharing is coming during a recession and that we have to find a way to pay for it. Some have made the point that Paris’ bicycle-sharing system is paid for privately, but it is not as obnoxious as New York’s. The difference is that JCDecaux, a French advertising firm, pays for the enormous system in exchange for advertising rights on several city billboards. There is no advertising on any of the bicycles or stations. New York’s system is being paid for privately as well, but the exchange is the company’s logo slapped all over the bikes and the stations. The trend isn’t unique to the States: Washington, D.C.’s Capital Bikeshare does not feature advertising on the bikes either.

I will not be using Citi Bikes, and I hope that Chicago’s upcoming bicycle sharing network will take a cue from D.C. and not slap advertising all over the system. Chicago is also the city that proposed allowing companies to buy the naming rights to its L stations, so I’m not hopeful. Public spaces such as buses, trains, and stations should not be turned to private control because of budget shortfalls that the private sector has largely engineered themselves by dodging taxes through loopholes. We should not allow corporations to completely buy out our transportation infrastructure.

Chicago announces transportation plan

May 12, 2012 at 1:05 pm

Check out this article from the Sun-Times about some small improvements Chicago will be making this summer.

Among the improvements include reducing residential street speed limits to 20 miles per hour, and giving pedestrians at signaled intersections a 3 second head start (along with new countdown timers at 300 intersections).

In a bicyclist’s shoes

May 8, 2012 at 8:21 pm

I just finished reading a short article over at The Atlantic Cities about driver-cyclist relations between the Netherlands and the U.S. The stance of the author can be summed up in this short excerpt:

This emphasis on early education in the rules of the road doesn’t simply result in well-mannered and safe bike riders who use the excellent cycling infrastructure on Dutch streets responsibly. It also means that everyone in the society understands what it is to be a cyclist. All the people driving cars have had experience on bikes. They can look at cyclists and think, “That could be me.”

While I agree that bicyle safety education is important, I do wonder how well the education “sticks” is relative to the entire society. The Dutch ride their bicycles far more often than Americans, leading me to believe that since most Americans go on to drive a car later in life, and bike for “leisure” purposes rather than as a means of getting from A to B, they simply forget this information. Most Americans forget what it’s like to be a cyclist, whereas most Dutch people know exactly how it feels to be a cyclist.

I can recall a time when I was riding a bike north on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. It was a busy Saturday, and there is no bicycle path of any sort on the street itself. I needed to turn left to go to Walgreens to buy a drink. I got into the far left lane to turn when a car with a man and a woman began honking their horn excessively. I had in no way cut this couple off, but they seemed displeased by my occupation of the lane. The woman began screaming “bike lane!” while I motioned that I was turning left. As I said, there is no bike lane on Michigan Avenue, nor is it possible to ride on the sidewalk due to the heavy pedestrian traffic.

Judging by their out-of-state license plates, I am thinking they did not know that traffic speeds on Michigan Avenue are relatively low nonetheless, and a cyclist could probably win a race from 1200 S Michigan to Lake Shore Drive against an automobile.

Even if Americans made a better effort to teach their children about cycling safety, I do not believe that it would actually have a lasting effect. Many children go on to obtain their driver’s license and forget what it is like to be a cyclist. Until Americans shift to a more bicycle-friendly society, the majority will still always have the mind of a driver.

Why I can’t trust LEED Certifications

May 7, 2012 at 11:33 pm

I’m a little upset lately by the gratuitous use of “green” or “environmentally-friendly” labeling of products lately (for an example just see this ad by British Petroleum purporting to be “green”). Deemed greenwashing, Wikipedia defines “greenwashing” as:

…a form of spin in which green PR or green marketing is deceptively used to promote the perception that an organization’s aims and policies are environmentally friendly.

Companies have been jumping on the “green” bandwagon for a while, with examples as subtle as a “green” bottle of…water. But a larger and less obvious example of greenwashing is the USGBC’s LEED certification and rating system.

I am a fan of any effort to lessen our carbon footprint, but I am also not a fool. I don’t think recycling is the best way to be green (we must use less, period). I don’t think hybrid or electric cars really do anything for pollution (especially if they still enable people to live far from their work, live in large energy-consumptive homes, or are powered by electricity generated by coal).

And I don’t think that certain buildings deserve LEED Gold certification when they operate 15 buses per hour (at peak) over a two-mile-long shuttle route.

Yet that’s precisely what the newest residence hall at my university has accomplished. Cambridge Commons is built at North Avenue and Cambridge Avenue in Milwaukee, a 1.9-mile drive from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee’s main campus. To move students from this residence hall to the campus, the university operates numerous shuttles ranging in size from small hybrid sedans to 66-passenger yellow school buses. At their peak, these shuttles operate every 4 minutes. You can imagine how empty these shuttles are at most times.

At the same time as these shuttles operate near-empty, they spew carbon emissions into the air during the entire 4.3-mile loop. Running at 4 minute intervals is not only unnecessary (I saw 3 of them on my 10-minute walk to work at 7:30 this morning), it weakens the argument that Cambridge Commons residence hall is a “green” building. The redundancy of the shuttle service is also apparent: A route that goes directly to and from UWM stops right by the dorms, and another county bus running between the airport and a popular suburban mall, stopping one block from UWM, is a three-minute walk from Cambridge Commons.

Of course, I champion the accomplishment that is the development, as it does mitigate the effects of stormwater (a problem Milwaukee has begun to solve with a deep tunnel), enables the cafeteria to use truly local food grown on the roof, and is built to LEED standards. But to ignore the grossly negative effects of air pollution is as insane as the practice of LEED-certified parking garages.

You may ask why the residence halls were not built closer to campus in order to avoid requiring shuttles; the answer is not simple enough for this post, but it involves local politics and lots of quality-of-life complaints from residents around the existing on-campus dorms (which have existed in their current state since 1971). Perhaps I will refer to this sort of university neighborhood politics in a later post.

Until then, remember that LEED-certified buildings are primarily just a (very expensive) way to market a development. And bottled water with leaves on it will never be green.

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