There’s a moment early on in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy when the novel’s befuddled protagonist, Arthur Dent, is lying in the mud in front of a bulldozer, protesting the unexpected demolition of his house to make way for a bypass. (Moments later, Earth itself will be demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass.) “I’m afraid you’re going to have to accept it,” says the man in charge of the demolition, Mr. Prosser. “This bypass has got to be built and it’s going to be built!”
“First I’ve heard of it,” said Arthur, “why’s it got to be built?”
Mr. Prosser shook his finger at him for a bit, then stopped and put it away again.
“What do you mean, why’s it got to be built?” he said. “It’s a bypass. You’ve got to build bypasses.”
I experience flashes of that same circular non-logic when I think about the relentless development insanity currently gripping Milwaukee. Why does another 15-floor, 150-room, “luxury” apartment complex got to be built? Why does another pre-fab, “mixed-use” retail space got to be built? Well, you’ve got to build them, that’s why.
It’s gotten to the point where it’s almost impossible to keep up. Let’s stick to apartments for the time being: Last May, Urban Milwaukee counted 1,449 new apartments being built or planned within a two-mile radius of City Hall. That number is now undoubtedly low, as evidenced by this handy Milwaukee development Google Map which counts more than 20 planned developments (including things like the Couture and an apartment complex at the old Faust Music site), more than 15 projects currently under construction (including all those North End complexes going up on the east side of the Milwaukee River), and more than 25 projects listed as “proposed.” Just this week, a 13-story apartment complex was proposed for Farwell Avenue, the Mandel Group began construction on a six-story apartment complex in the Third Ward, and a New York developer bought the old Pabst brewery malt house and surrounding buildings and plans to turn them into—you guessed it—apartments.
They’re apartments. You’ve got to build apartments.
I’ve gently mocked Milwaukee’s insatiable apartment fever in these pages before, calling the designs beige or wondering “Where are they building luxury apartments you’ll never be able to afford THIS week?” But, as it turns out, there’s a perfectly good reason for building them: people want to live in them. Again, according to Urban Milwaukee, apartment vacancies in the city are currently the lowest they’ve been in 10 years, with a rental vacancy rate of 5.6 percent—more than one percentage point below the national average. Urban Milwaukee continues:
Milwaukee, in line with the rest of the nation, has seen a steady decline in the apartment vacancy rate since 2005. This comes at the same time thousands of apartments have recently opened in Milwaukee and the rest of the region. Yet, as we’ve reported, thousands more apartments are still coming to the market and the Census Bureau figures suggest the still booming demand will absorb the new units quickly. This is in line with individual buildings we’ve profiled, including The North End, which is 96 percent occupied and the Brix Apartment Lofts which is 100 percent full.
So there you go. Putting aside issues like the dubious definition of “luxury,” rent that practically screams “You don’t belong here unless you make at least $70,000 a year!” and the city’s single-minded quest to transform every undeveloped scrap of land—land that you perhaps used to walk through on your way home from work, or maybe once sat on with a raven-haired girl and watched the Perseid meteor shower 8,000 years ago—into a fucking rock-climbing condo clusterfuck or whatever, Milwaukee’s in good shape. Onward!
Which brings me to the Shops of Grand Avenue. Earlier this week, the Shepherd Express reported that a collective of artists and small arts groups called Studio G had been given a 30-day notice to vacate its space on the ground floor of the forever-troubled downtown mall. The mall, which was sold to a group of investors for $24.6 million late last year, plans to “renovate the space for the purpose of advertising its availability for retail occupancy.”
It’s a story that made less of a blip on the Milwaukee radar—more like a single “i!”—and one that seems sadly inevitable. After all, Studio G has been setting up shop in the former site of Linens ‘n Things, which accounts for almost 30,000 square feet of the mall’s Plankinton Arcade. The idea of some DIY artists and arts groups continuing to occupy such a gigantic chunk of real estate in a mall that’s currently reinventing itself is absurd. They clearly need to go.
And yet… And yet the forever struggling, ultimately insignificant, put-upon underdog in me always perks up when he sees quotes like this, from one of the soon-to-be-displaced Grand Ave. artists, Michael Pettit:
“Like the announcement, a year ago, that the Milwaukee Fortress is moving out its tenants and converting the space into high-end residential housing, this is another even more serious hurtful loss of creative space for independent and community-based arts in Milwaukee. I feel there needs to be a response to that. I feel like people should care about that, and that if we let people know, my hope is that the community will respond.”
And there’s the rub to all this happy-go-lucky development: while something big is being gained, something small is almost always being lost. Whether it’s a ramshackle old building that used to host bands and artists (cough cough Sydney Hih) or just a vacant lot that held meaning for someone, places have histories and importance that can’t be replaced when they’re inevitably razed and re-developed. (The highly scientific term for this is “character.”) And for the most part, people don’t care, and the community at large doesn’t respond.
Let’s take Pettit’s example of The Fortress, a beloved downtown building that once housed countless Milwaukee artists, musicians, filmmakers, and more. After it was announced last March that the complex was slated to become—you’ll never guess!—luxury apartments, people grumbled on Facebook, I mentioned it here and on The Disclaimer, Mary Louise Schumacher wrote a nice piece for the Journal Sentinel, and that was about it. Onward.
And here’s the other rub: there’s nothing you can do about it. Call it cynical if you want, but change will happen with or without you, and unless you plan on getting buried in the past, it’s best to simply step away and get with the shiny new program. “Have you any idea how much damage that bulldozer would suffer if I just let it roll straight over you?” Mr. Prosser asks poor Arthur Dent midway through their house-demolishing standstill.
“How much?” said Arthur.
“None at all,” said Mr. Prosser.
Still, when the bulldozers come—and oh, they will come—it’s nice to know that someone cared, and that someone continues to care.