Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Mandel Group's Orwellian Vision of Milwaukee River

The Mandel Group, one of Milwaukee’s most prominent development corporations, has taken Orwellian doublespeak to new level.

Mandel spokesman, Bob Monnat, characterized the Milwaukee Common Council’s decision to protect 800 acres of pristine riverbanks north of the Milwaukee River as elitist.

The resolution creating a special zoning district that restricts development on both sides of the River for two years while more detailed protection plans are hashed out is the antithesis of elitism.

Preserving the riverway is an attempt to humanize the man-made environment. Promoting public access democratizes its use by providing recreational opportunities for all of Milwaukee’s citizens. This is why it was justified to use public dollars to clean the river that manufacturers and others had polluted! Now that the river is healthy, financial elites, i.e. real estate developers like Mandel, want to privatize the return on the publics' investment.

They would return us to the early Nineteenth Century when the city was seen primarily as an agency of capitalist expansion, a place where men could make money by doing as they pleased with their property. This perspective was challenged in the middle of the Nineteenth Century by, among others, the poet and newspaper editor, William Cullen Bryant, who argued in 1844 that “commerce is devouring inch by inch” the space of the city and “if we would rescue any part of it for health or recreation it must be done now.” In response New York City commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted to develop one of the world’s great parks, Manhattan’s Central Park.

Olmsted’s vision, which Milwaukee’s river preservationists are applying to create a linear riverway version of Central Park, was to develop the city in harmony with its natural environment. It consciously rejected Europe’s stylized and aristocratic park model by preserving the area’s natural features and topography. “By making nature urbane,” commented Lewis Mumford,” he naturalized the city.”

Olmsted's vision was democratic. He believed parks promoted a sense of community in urban areas. Where else could so many people be found together,”...with an evident glee in the prospect of coming together, all classes represented…each individual adding by his mere presence to the pleasure of others….” asked Olmsted?

The Common Council’s decision to place a two year moratorium on riverway development while preservationist plans are developed is based on this democratic vision. It protects the interest of the public that owns 70% of the land and ensures a fully transparent and public debate on how this pristine riverway should be utilized.

It is the Mandel Group’s vision that is elitist.

What, after all, could be more elitist than auctioning Milwaukee’s riverway to the highest bidder? But that is exactly what will happen if we allow the price mechanism to determine the riverway’s use. This wonderful natural resource will be purchased by powerful and connected developers who will pocket millions constructing high end condos and commercial space on the river’s edge while undermining public access and use.

Nothing could be more elitist than that!


treehuggr said...

You are dead on! Thanks!

B said...

hell yeah.

Cream City said...

Thank you -- not only for getting the big picture but also for getting it right (as the Journal Sentinel could not this week) re the spelling of the name of the great Frederick Law Olmsted.

He is smiling down upon you for many reasons (if scratching his heavenly scalp about what the heck is a blog).

Roger Bybee said...

RE: Mandel's Orwellian Vision for the Milwaukee River by Michael Rosen

Milwaukee's precious public spaces alongside waterways have long been protected by the legacy of our city's democratic Socialists, who viewed these areas as "the city's lungs." In this vision, all people were entitled to breathe freely and to have equal access to this land.

Socialist administrations built Lake Park, using the great Frederick Law Olmsted to design this wonderful public space. But as corporate taxes have been slashed astonishingly in Wisconsin (from 21% of state revenues in 1980 to about 3.5% now) cities like Milwaukee have less and less money to maintain these public spaces. Hence, a pleasant public cafe in Lake Park was converted into Bartolotta's pricey, exclusive restaurant and public access was lost.

The Mandel vision of privatizing access to the river is directly at odds with Milwaukee's tradition. But public officials, who 1) rely on corporate contributions from Mandel and other big developers to get elected and 2) depend on private developments to inject some tax revenue into public coffers (even though the revenue is often tightly restricted by Tax Incremental Financing which allocates the money exclusively to the improvement of the immediate area.)

Michael Rosen's excellent essay underscores the urgent need for four major reforms:
1)The implementation of a truly democratic planning process to return control of the city's future to the people, instead of the developers who come up with financing and plans. Despite overwhelming public opposition, the developers' plans have been repeatedly and rapidly rubber-stamped by public officials such as East Side Ald. Michael D'Amato, the Planning Commission, the Zoning and Development Committee and the full Common Council. The developers' vision thus prevails, trumping genuine democracy again and again.

Instead, the city ought to convene large-scale, grass-roots meetings to establish planning councils for every area of the city and empower these councils to determine the future of the neighborhoods.

Currently, a tiny clique of developers and their allies at City Hall are running roughshod over the will of the public in the absence of democratic planning.

2) Full public funding of elections, to sever the link between legal "payoffs" (called campaign contributions) and policy "paybacks" such as giving away public access to the public's waterways and land.

3) Restoration of a fair and progressive tax system that forces corporations and the rich to pay their fair share, so that the public sector is not starved for revenues.

4) An end to corporate subsidies like the handouts to Harley Davidson, Manpower, Pabst City, and Cabela's Sporting Goods without a clear and iron-clad linkage to the creation of large numbers of high-quality jobs.