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The Milwaukee Brewers Need a “Beer District”
Guest column by urban planner Robin Palm.
The Recombobulation Area is a six-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written and published by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
Guest column by Robin Palm
Palm is a Planner II at the Village of Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, where he conducts plan, permit, and code review. He is the Southeastern District representative for the American Planning Association’s Wisconsin Chapter, and a board member of the Washington Heights Neighborhood Association. His views are his own and not representative of any office or organization.
Here’s the pitch: The Brewers need a “Beer District.”
Much like the Deer District, this would be a large entertainment, commercial, and mixed-use area around American Family Field, with two main objectives:
1) To provide the fans with a full slate of options of things to do while spending their time and money at the ballpark.
2) To supplement the revenues of the Brewers and the Stadium District, with the benefit that each would be self-sufficient and not subject to the changing whims of politics for financial support.
Since the five-county stadium sales tax ended in August 2020, rumors have spread about the team and the stadium’s future. Just last week, a new report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel stated that addressing long-term maintenance needs is a top priority, with a study currently being conducted on what needs to be done. A public ask in the neighborhood of $100 million is being floated. Given the public rancor against the five-county stadium tax, there is little doubt that political reception to such an idea will be frosty at best.
But with challenge comes opportunity, and there is certainly no better time of opportunity than the current moment in Milwaukee. Consider:
A major highway renovation project immediately adjacent to the stadium is in the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s planning phases.
Milwaukee is electing its first new mayor in nearly 20 years.
The Deer District near Fiserv Forum has been a massive success, booming even beyond anyone’s wildest expectations during the Bucks 2021 championship run. The Deer District wouldn’t have been possible without the tear down of the Park East Freeway in 2003.
Manufacturing company Komatsu is relocating its North American headquarters to Milwaukee’s Harbor District, leaving its 45-acre site adjacent to the stadium open, and leaving West Milwaukee in active search of development to fill the space.
Enter the “Beer District.” A massive redevelopment plan converting hundreds of acres of underutilized parking lots and vacant manufacturing into an entirely new and prosperous section of the city.
The theme would be simple: Beer and Baseball.
The inspirational examples are plentiful, from Ballpark Village near Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Navy Yard around Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., and The Battery near Truist Park in Atlanta. We can also draw inspiration from the massive successes right here in Wisconsin with the Bucks’ Deer District and the Packers’ Titletown development. When one considers the numerous examples of ballpark-adjacent development, the lack of it around American Family Field becomes even more glaring.
There are four main components of the “Beer District” plan. 1) Converting some of the stadium’s parking lots into a grid to allow for development and walkability. 2) Convert the Stadium Freeway (WI-175) from a highway into a boulevard and weave that into the grid, as well. 3) The third component is the redesign of the Stadium Interchange, avoiding the massive three-tier interchange currently proposed, and building one more suited to a new 175 design, with additional exits to and from 44th and 46th streets. 4) The fourth component of the plan is the development and connection of the Komatsu site to the area.
The “Beer District” has the potential to dwarf the revenue previously provided by the five-county stadium tax. A mixed-use district would use funding mechanisms such as Tax Increment Financing (TIF) to fund initial construction and attract businesses. It would also create a Business Improvement District (BID) to garner property tax funds for the upkeep and renovation of the stadium and the “Beer District” itself. Finally, direct ownership or leasing of certain amenities such as hotels and restaurants would bring in direct revenue to the team. Any money lost on parking fees will be more than made up for with these new revenue streams. Parts of the road reconstruction would be undertaken as part of the I-94 reconstruction project.
The most important cost of all is also the cheapest – this path of redevelopment would incur next to no political cost. It would be seen as the team and Stadium District taking it upon themselves to pay their own way. The billions in new development would help Milwaukee’s city and county budgets and bring new residents and businesses to the city’s west side.
As for parking, while parking lot tailgating is an essential part of any Brewers game, we need to acknowledge that the overall level of parking is currently too high. The number of spaces exceeds that of Disney World in Orlando, Florida, which ranks as one of the largest parking lots in the world. Second, the massive amount of development will yield many additional opportunities and requirements for parking structures and garages as needed. These obviously can be shared to minimize costs and maximize efficiency.
Third, a new “Beer District” can mobilize the power of transit. Bar shuttles to and from games are extremely popular and should be planned for and actively encouraged. The Brewers’ amazing tailgating culture can be within a new district, too, with specially designed areas, facilities, and VIP treatment. Other transit opportunities exist to link the large parking resources with various destinations throughout the county, linking parking lots from Summerfest, Potawatomi, American Family Field, State Fairgrounds, the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center, and Mayfair Mall together.
Obviously, there are many more details to consider on the concept, but more important is the acceptance of the big idea and a commitment to exploring it. Once you dig in a little bit, it becomes a question not of if the Brewers can afford to do it, but whether the Brewers can afford not to do it.
The call to action is this: If the Brewers and the Stadium District are interested in securing self-sufficient revenue streams to maintain and renovate the stadium and then some, they need to take these steps very soon:
Contact the secretary of WisDOT, Craig Thompson, and Governor Tony Evers and discuss a redesign of the I-94 project. They will listen. After all, a considerable amount of the current Stadium Interchange design is to service parking at Brewers games.
Contact the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County to discuss setting up a Tax Increment District and Business Improvement District.
Secure a contract with the Komatsu site, either through a Brewers development affiliate or partnering with a private developer through a joint venture, and discuss its development with the Village of West Milwaukee.
And from there, build the “Beer District.”
Born and raised in Virginia, Robin Palm completed his Master of Urban Planning Degree at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. He’s on Twitter at @BourbonPlanner.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.