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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Global Vision

Paradise in Our Own Back Yard

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The Department of City Development has formulated a Northeast Side Plan, a broad guide to future development of an area that includes the Milwaukee River environmental corridor and the Hometown site. The plan will be finalized later this month and will offer a broad frame within which site conflicts can be resolved. Mark Keane, a professor of architecture at UW-Milwaukee who was part of the plan’s team, explained that it isn’t a binding, legal document. “It’s just a global vision for community … edge conditions will be sorted out on a district or neighborhood level,” he said.

Keane added that resolving these “edge conditions” is all about finding the right balance. “It’s very rare to find a city that’s got a major lake on one side and a major river on the other,” he said. “Those edge conditions have to be treated poignantly. There has to be some type of compromise to make the city healthy and vital and not throw the baby out with the bath water and just overdevelop things.”

At the same time, Keane noted the simple truths of urbanization. “The greater density you have, the greater transit you have, the healthier the city is,” he said. “If you don't allow development, the parts beyond river fall into decline.”

Ann Brummitt of MRWG also acknowledged the wisdom of building within the city. “All of us are very smart-growth oriented and hate to see sprawl, and if you’re going to hate to see sprawl, there’s an importance to backing developments and to having tall buildings in cities,” Brummitt said.

However, she added, “There are places to develop and there are places where maybe we shouldn’t.” When it comes to developing areas adjacent to the river, it might serve to look at other cities that are incorporating similar measures to protect their river corridors—Portland, Ore., for example. Along parts of the city’s Willamette River, they’re going beyond setbacks and height restrictions to address the massing, orientation and even the articulation of the faade of new buildings.

Measures like these point to ways in which we can stop exploiting our natural amenities and instead use them to instruct the design of new structures. So much new development lacks spatial specificity—new structures often appear as if they could be placed almost anywhere. Here we have an area that’s rich in potential and could lead to a new way of envisioning public and private space. Perhaps we should use the viewshed as a tool for drawing elements of the river out, rather than greedily vying for space within.