Wednesday, June 3, 2009

My Way . . .

I was reading this article by Tom Still of the Wisconsin Technology Council earlier today and I couldn't stop thinking about how much it illustrates one of the ways that the relationship between business and the community can break down.

Still is exorcised about public opposition to a plan to locate the UW - Milwaukee's new School of Freshwater Sciences facility on a parcel of land on Lake Michigan between the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Discovery World museum. The now-defunct Pieces of Eight restaurant formerly occupied the site and it does seem logical to locate a school of freshwater sciences on the shores of the largest freshwater system in the world. Add to that the largess of Milwaukee philanthropist Michael Cudahy, who has proposed to personally acquire the leasehold interest in the land, thus allowing the university to use it free and clear for the foreseeable future.

The difficulty comes from the fact that the art museum, with its new pavilion designed by Santiago Calatrava, has become Milwaukee's architectural signature. The new Discovery World facility, on a pier stretching into the lake, serves as refreshing proof that it's possible to compliment an architectural icon without an iconic budget. Residents are understandably underwhelmed by the idea of messing with this graceful pair of landmarks by plopping an office building between them.

My issue with Still is his characterization of these individuals. After belittling the possibility of public use of the land, he chides them for second-guessing Cudahy when they have "no financial stake in the deal" and proceeds to extol the virtues of the "freshwater silicon valley" Milwaukee could be if only they would stand aside.

This is disingenuous. First of all, whatever financial assistance Cudahy might be willing to provide the university, generous though it may be, is likely a pittance compared to the value to the City of Milwaukee (as represented by its citizens) of its signature view. Yes, there is the far greater value of Milwaukee's potential status as the world's moistened mecca but how exactly has that entire vision been so inextricably linked to this site?

Still doesn't really do anything to support his contention that Milwaukee's preeminance in the field of freshwater science will be rendered impossible if the school's office building isn't located on one particular stretch of Milwaukee's miles and miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. This may indeed be the best place for the building but to paint citizens opposed to this particular development as enemies of Milwaukee's economic future is hyperbolic at best.

You may find, in the annals of this very blog, a post I made deriding a group of Lake Kegonsa NIMBYists who helped torpedo (federal cronyism is probably what really did it in) a UW - Madison proposal for a $300 million national biothreat lab and think me a hypocrite. Allow me to point out the difference.

No matter what happens, the UW - Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences will get a new building. It will probably be a nice one and it will probably even be on the lake. The Governor has already promised the money. As much as Tom Still would like to portray public opposition to the Pieces of Eight site as jeopardizing a glorious technological future, the only things at stake here are the location of an office building and Milwaukee's signature view and those can be discussed. The shame is that they won't be.

People opposing the development will see Cudahy and company as hell-bent on carving up Milwaukee's lake shore. The development's proponents will see the opposition as a bunch of myopic yokels chaining themselves to bulldozers. A process that should have been a communal investment in the future of southeast Wisconsin will probably leave a lot of people with a bitter taste in their mouths.


Alex Wollangk said...

Yet another example of the human tendency to pidgeonhole and therefore de-humanize everyone who disagrees with us. "They couldn't possibly have a point, they're a bunch of stinking hippies."

If we could just come to grips with the fact that [gasp] our every thought did not come dripping like sacrosanct honey from the very lips of God. There might, in fact, be a way our good ideas could come together with other good ideas to end up with something EVERYONE will be happy with. The problem with that is we're worried that some perfect part of our idea might become sullied by compromise and keep us up at night, crying over the calamity of it all.

Yes, we all have good ideas. No idea is perfect, though. I completely agree that the article by Tom Still seems to completely discard the idea of, you, know, build the school somewhere else. It seems he is convinced that if it isn't built in that exact spot that it won't get built at all which is patently ridiculous.

There ARE times when the public rallies around some worthless, unused plot of land for misguided reasons and blocks progress. This, however, is not the case. There are plenty of other places the School of Freshwater Sciences can be located and very valid reasons not to put it in between two Milwaukee landmarks. Or, if you really want to put it there put your money where your mouth is and find an Architect to design a building to put there that does not detract from the architectural value of that neighborhood. I'm with the residents, though, in that I seriously doubt that a state funded office building for a UW Milwaukee Freshwater Sciences school is unlikely to have that kind of investment paid to it.

Tom is discounting one more issue: Yes, the school will undoubtedly provide real benefits to Wisconsin for the future. The residents and visitors in that area will also have to live with the new building on a daily basis. If it is a comparative eyesore it will be resented not just by the current residents but by future inhabitants.

You mentioned the Dane County Courthouse in your previous article which is the best comparison you can make. This school has the potential to be another Dane County Courthouse for Milwaukee.

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