County Executive Chris Abele remembers the nighttime rain when the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Calatrava addition officially opened in 2001. He remembers the tents set up on O’Donnell Plaza. He remembers how “burnt out” many of the supporters were after the dot-com crash and the addition’s unprecedented $100 million price tag. (“I was on the board early on before the Calatrava,” Abele says, “back when it was a $27 million project.”)
But “the wings started to slowly open up,” he says, “and I know I was very much not the only person there who thought, ‘I am so freaking glad we did this. This is just special and awesome and great.’ That moment was a different way of thinking about this city.”
That moment is exactly the kind of thing Abele would like to see more of. “At the time they chose [Santiago] Calatrava at the art museum as an architect, that was anything but the safe choice,” he says. “And some might say it was anything but a Milwaukee choice. Thank God they made it.”
When Milwaukee chose Calatrava, he’d never completed a project in the United States and had completed only one building in North America. When everyone was zigging with predictable Frank Gehry, Milwaukee zagged with a “starchitect” who was on the fringe – a risky move for a relatively staid city.
But that risky choice resulted in an extraordinary building that’s now a city icon. That sort of risk involves “accepting together that we’re going to do something differently, we’re going to look at something differently and think about something differently,” Abele says.
And Milwaukee has started to think and look at things differently. Local events have started focusing on the future of the city. (See: the Envisioning the Seen discussion at the Pabst Theater and Milwaukee’s Future in the Chicago Megacity conference at Marquette.) Another such endeavor was held late summer in the City Hall rotunda with one key difference: a call to action. Answering New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s challenge, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett solicited innovative ideas from the community, ones focused specifically on mitigating the food shortage and foreclosure crisis. The mayor whittled down more than 100 submissions to 10, and those ideas were presented before a standing-room-only crowd Aug. 28.
The winner was Gretchen Mead, the founding director of the Victory Garden Initiative. She wants to repurpose foreclosed homes as urban homesteads to grow local food and provide homesteaders a path to homeownership. Her plan went up against ideas from more than 300 other cities for one of 20 finalist spots, which were to be announced in October. Representatives from those 20 cities will attend an ideas camp in November for a chance at a $5 million grant. Even if Milwaukee comes up empty-handed, Barrett has promised to act on the Milwaukee proposals, calling it the “essence of this entire challenge.”
Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, predicts this sort of civic brainstorm will become more common. “I think you’re going to see people trying to figure out better ways to solve problems that’s almost like crowdsourcing,” she says.
With an eye to the future – the year 2050 to be exact – dozens of city leaders were put to the test. What does Milwaukee need to do to become a world-class city? A large time frame was chosen to escape the day-to-day politics, focus on the big ideas and think about the next generation rather than the next election cycle.
Although local population projections for 2050 don’t exist (yes, look that far ahead), there are two possible paths for the city. The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission’s highest projection sees Milwaukee County regaining recent population losses and exceeding 1 million residents in the next few years. But the group’s lowest projection predicts Milwaukee’s population will continue to decrease before seeing a slight uptick after 2015. That projection estimates a 2035 population of 13,600 fewer residents than in 2000.
For Milwaukee to follow the first path – a path of growth and progress – a few things have to change. “We’d want a higher average household income than now,” Gov. Scott Walker says, which means a stable tax base and a stable population. The keys to doing that are education and employment, he says, and many of the following 21 ideas address those challenges. These ideas have the potential for big change, not unlike turning a Nike missile silo site into the Summerfest grounds, tearing down the Park East freeway spur or choosing a bold architect for a major museum project.
So roll up your sleeves, Milwaukee. We’ve got work to do.
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