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Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2009

Debating Milwaukee's Other East Side

In Bay View, big hopes and conflicting visions

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Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood became tagged as the city’s “other East Side” early this decade, largely on the appeal of a handful of pioneering trendy bars and restaurants. These days those businesses have a whole lot more company. In the past two years, they’ve been joined by more than a dozen new establishments, including popular restaurants like Cafe Centraal and Honeypie, hip taverns like Burnhearts and Blackbird, and upscale bars like Sugar Maple and the Tonic Tavern.

With the spate of new nightlife options and a steady influx of young residents moving to Bay View, investors are bullish on the South Side neighborhood.

“Downtown Bay View is going to end up becoming one of the premier entertainment districts in the city, if it isn’t already,” predicts Dan Lee, who co-owns the buildings that house Cafe Centraal and Sugar Maple. “Hopefully it will keep growing. There’s room for more restaurants and more shops, and I believe these businesses will build off each other.”

Lee credits much of the district’s growth to Alderman Tony Zielinski, who since his 2004 election has focused on concentrating development around the triangle intersection of Kinnickinnic, Lincoln and Howell avenues, aggressively courting business owners. “There wouldn’t be half the development in that area that there is now without Tony,” Lee said.

But while many Bay View residents are similarly encouraged by the new businesses, some are skeptical about whether the historically residential neighborhood can comfortably reinvent itself as a nightlife district. Meanwhile, debates over new development have highlighted a generational divide in the area.

Residential Concerns

Amber Van Galder is among the Bay View residents disillusioned by the sudden growth. She was attracted to the neighborhood by its quiet, residential feel, but noticed an increase in noise, disturbances and parking problems when Sugar Maple opened near her East Lincoln Avenue residence. She decided to move when she learned Cafe Centraal was opening on the same block.

“I’ve only lived in Bay View for a little over two years, but it already feels like a completely different community,” Van Galder said. “Everything is happening too fast, and I don’t think the community was ready to handle this big boom of nightlife. It’s turning into a party neighborhood when it’s not cut out for it. We don’t have the parking, and there are all these weird one-way streets, triangles and dead ends that people shouldn’t be driving on after they’ve been drinking.”

Other complaints have come from neighbors who may be keener on Bay View’s new establishments, but are less enthused about having one near their own properties. A performance space that doubles as a small bar, the Alchemist Theatre on Kinnickinnic Avenue south of the Lincoln/Howell corridor, has fielded noise complaints from neighbors who prefer their quiet block stay that way. Some of those neighbors voiced the same concerns about the Bay View Brew Haus, which opened near the Alchemist this summer.

Alchemist owner Erica Case says she was surprised by the complaints. “It’s interesting, because Bay View has traditionally been a working-class neighborhood with a bar on every corner,” Case said. “It’s always been a place where you could walk down the block, have a beer with your neighbor, then walk home. As a lifelong Bay View resident, I personally like that foot traffic. It’s a deterrent to crime.”

The Blackbird bar, which opened last November in the building that was previously The Groove, at 3007 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., has also faced neighbors concerned about noise. Blackbird’s owners bought the building with hopes of converting its outdoor space into a patio, but those plans were upended by opponents at a Licenses Committee meeting this May. Co-owner Holly DeShaw said she was blindsided by the opposition.

“We tried to talk to the neighbors to explain our intentions, and prove we’re trying to be a responsible business by fixing up our building and holding community cleanups and food drives,” DeShaw said. “Tony Zielinski said we should have a meeting and get a feel for the neighborhood’s opinion, and we did that, and at that meeting we had a strong turnout in favor of the patio, and in the end all but one neighbor there was for the patio. So we felt going into the Licenses Committee meeting that we had a good chance of getting approved, but we were shocked when about 30 people we’d never seen before showed up to oppose us.”

DeShaw said she understands why neighbors were skeptical, and that Blackbird plans to try for a patio again next year, “after we’ve hopefully proven ourselves.” Still, she said, the rejection stings.

“The Whitehouse, another bar right up the block in a residential area, has a big patio with a volleyball court and no fence,” she said. “It’s hard for us to look at that and think that’s fair.”

The Licensing Debate

DeShaw isn’t alone in her concerns. With so many new establishments securing liquor and related licenses, the business owners who have been denied licenses feel they’re victims of a double standard.

“They want to know why one bar gets a license, and why the other doesn’t,” said Patty Thompson, president of the Bay View Neighborhood Association. “Liquor licenses are in many ways simply at the discretion of the alderperson and their committee. You can go back and forth over the arguments about who should get these licenses and why, but the fact is right now there isn’t a science behind it.”

The debate over the licensing process boiled over earlier this year, when Alderman Zielinski opposed a liquor license for AK Food Mart, a small convenience store near the Lincoln/Howell/Kinnickinnic triangle, where liquor licenses abound. Critics alleged that Zielinski was conspiring against the tread-worn bodega because it wasn’t trendy enough.

Zielinski maintains he’s been consistent about which businesses he supports granting liquor licenses for—ones run by “proven entrepreneurs that have a successful track record and the financial wherewithal to succeed and support the neighborhood”—and says the AK mart doesn’t meet that criteria.

“I support and encourage businesses that are going to invest a significant amount of money into the neighborhood, instead of just opening their door to exploit the neighborhood and make quick money selling beer,” Zielinski said. “The AK mart is what a lot of people consider a seedy establishment,” he explained. “I’ve got constituents who tell me they’re afraid of even parking their car in front of it. If I support that store for a license, then that becomes the standard, and I’d have to support liquor licenses for everyone who asked.”

Ultimately, Zielinski said, he gives the most weight to neighbor consensus. “I’ve got people complaining that there are too many licensed establishments, and others complaining that we should give licenses to everyone who wants them,” he said. “I’m in the middle of the road, and I think most of my constituents are in the middle of the road, too.”

Old vs. New

The debate over the AK mart underscores an ongoing tension in Bay View spurred by its recent growth. As the neighborhood prospers, some residents are worried about what role its traditional blue-collar base will play in the new Bay View. Heated recent debates over possible low-income housing at the Historic Hide House and the proposed Eco-Bay development near the lake have also highlighted these tensions.

“The interesting thing with Bay View, especially right now, is you have the old school and you have the new school,” said resident Chris Allen. “You have people who have lived there for 30-50 years who have always liked things the way they are, then you have newer, up-and-coming residents.”

Allen said that despite their differences, these two factions aren’t irreconcilable.

“I’m 34, so I guess I’d be considered part of the young generation, one of the new home buyers who are excited about seeing the growth of an entertainment district,” Allen said. “But I like that this neighborhood has this old-school class and this respect for Bay View’s blue-collar history. Not everybody sees eye to eye, but it creates a forum, a community.”

Jason Wedesky, owner of the Actaea Works spa and president of the new Bay View Business Association, agreed.

“There’s always going to be people that have lived here for years and want everything to be the same way,” Wedesky said. “I hold the exact opposite view: I love change, and seeing things move forward for the better. But that debate happens in any growing community, and it’s not a bad thing.”

Stephanie Harling, who has lived in Bay View her whole life, said that even among veteran neighborhood residents, there is rampant optimism.

“My mother has been here for almost 50 years, and she was actually thrilled with the revitalization and the new blood,” Harling said. “There are some people that are weary, but they’re more weary about the problems with parking and the increase in absentee landlords. They just liked the little secret that they had here for a long time.”

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