By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Nov 06, 2007 at 5:44 AM Photography: Zach Karpinski

Ald. Michael D’Amato is near the end of his third term representing Milwaukee's Third District on the Common Council. It appears he will face challenges from Sura Faraj and Nik Kovac in the April election.

Prior to taking office in 1996, D’Amato served as the executive director of the East Side Housing Action Committee. The ESHAC is a neighborhood organization that worked to improve economic development and housing conditions on Milwaukee's northeast side.

Ald. D'Amato and his wife, Becky, have three children — Nicolas, Lily and Jack -– who attend Milwaukee Public Schools.

The Third District includes part of the Riverwest area, Lake Drive, East North Avenue, Oakland Avenue, Brady Street and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The district's population is extremely diverse; featuring students, artists, skilled factory workers, professionals from all fields, professors, families, older citizens and business owners. Socioeconomic conditions range greatly, but according to D’Amato, the people in his district have the same concerns.

In the latest installment of Milwaukee Talks, sat down with D’Amato and discussed a wide range of topics including the upcoming election, crime, the possibility of two-way traffic on Farwell Avenue, Alterra Coffee coming to Riverwest, the smoking ban and more. What does an alderman do? Is it a full-time job?

Ald. Michael D’Amato: It is absolutely a full-time job. We are like the mayor of our little district -- all the things that affect you every day: police service, fire service, garbage service, street repairs, etc. In addition, we do planning -- that’s very important for the neighborhood. We do zoning, so we are involved in a lot of new developments and building inspections.

In this district, certainly, it is a full-time job. I probably work about 60 hours a week, and in addition to that, do three night meetings a week, either with the Riverwest Neighborhood Association, Water Tower Landmark Trust or the Downer Avenue Merchants’ Association. We go to all of the association meetings. There are about 30 of them in Riverwest. It’s a lifestyle as well as a job.

OMC: If you had a “magic Milwaukee wand” and could grant three wishes for the city, what would they be?

MD: I have always said that there are three things that create a stable city, and these would be my wishes: Everybody who wants to own a home can own a home, everyone who wants a family-supporting job that pays a good wage and health benefits could have it, and that every child got a quality education all the way through high school and college.

To me, home ownership, job creation of good-paying jobs and education stabilize the city and make it great. That’s the foundation that everything else is built upon.

OMC: Do you think Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) is capable of providing a good education?

MD: It always disturbs me when people lay the blame on MPS or lay the job of fixing societal problems on MPS. MPS teaches students that come to them with all types of baggage. Where you see schools with parents who care, you see good schools with good students, but where you have less than that -- students who don’t have clean sheets to sleep on or students who don’t know where their next meal is coming from -- that’s where the problems are. And MPS absorbs those problems. It’s gotta be a holistic approach to solve these problems, and until we do that, MPS will continue to have problems.

OMC: The Third District is very diverse, with 40,000 people from many different walks of life. How do you find the middle ground that will appease people living on Holton Street and those living on Lake Drive?

MD: It’s hard sometimes, but the benefit of this district is the people who live near the lake are not people who think differently -- they may have different means or bigger houses or more money -- but as far as ideology and thought, the district is pretty progressive from end to end. People understand that problems need long-term solutions, the things that I spoke about before -- home ownership, education and good jobs -- are things we need to work on.

There really isn’t a pitting of one side against the other. I was knocking on doors the other day, and we did a ward on Marietta and Lake Drive and Shepherd, and then we did a ward up near Holton Street, and it’s amazing to see the difference in the lifestyle, but the people are concerned about the same things: crime, education and making sure they get the biggest bang for their tax dollar.

OMC: As an alderman, is there really anything you can do to improve crime?

MD: I think this is a great question that you ask. I think that when crime’s bad, elected officials get too much of the blame, and when crime’s down, we get too much of the credit. A lot of it has to do with forces that are out of our control, but I’m one of those people who do not believe that the police department is the only solution for crime.

We have a ton of city departments that need to fight crime. The Health Department has to make people healthy, we need to lower the infant mortality rate. We need to get people off of their addictions. That fights crime. Our Department of City Development needs to help businesses create jobs. That fights crime. Our libraries need to stay open, so the kids have an alternative, a place to go to get off the streets.

Everybody has a role in fighting crime, and when we just put money into cops, we diminish the amount of resources we give to everyone else, and so you’re using the most resources on the most expensive solution.

OMC: Do you think crime is getting worse in Riverwest?

MD: There has been a spike in crime in Riverwest over the last year. It’s not a dramatic increase, but we’re seeing more gun crime. If I were able to do one thing crime-wise, I would get every gun off the street. The kinds of crimes we’re seeing were never committed with guns in the past. Like if someone were going to mug someone, they would do it with their hands, now they’re carrying a gun. And that’s the stuff that scares me. If one thing goes wrong with a gun crime, someone’s dead. If something goes wrong with a mugging (in the past) you may have a black eye or a bloody nose, but you weren’t dead. We need to get guns off the street.

OMC: Do you think the new Alterra will have a strong positive impact on Riverwest?

MD: I think it’s great for Riverwest. The building it replaced was a blight, and it wasn’t contributing to the neighborhood. Secondly, they’re bringing their whole operation here, and are creating jobs. That’s wonderful for the neighborhood. And Alterra has a history of hiring people from the neighborhood already. And it’s going to be a gathering spot. It’s a really valuable marriage between private sector and public sector. Alterra is a company with a community conscience, so what they do makes them money but it’s also really good for the neighborhood.

OMC: What are your thoughts on the development of the river trails?

MD: The trails are fantastic. I have supported the trails. We got money from the state to build the East Bank Trail. We helped get money from the state to build the West Bank Trail. There needs to be a very distinct difference between the hard scape of the river that ends around the Humboldt Bridge and the soft scape that begins above the dam. I think access is incredibly important, and I will point to another success that I think we had.

When I was first elected, one of the emphases I had, was to make  the opening of the Oak Leaf Trail -- the bike trail -- accessible from multiple points. And we’ve done that. We provided an access ramp from North Avenue, we provided a ramp at the Kenilworth building that provides access, we will provide a ramp at the Layfettee Park condominiums that will provide access. The Brady Street Bridge now provides access, and I think we’re going to do the same thing at Cambridge Woods.

Those access points have made the trail far more utilized and much safer because more people use it now. The same is true with the river. I think that you can have access without necessarily interrupting the natural state of the river. That’s the delicate part of figuring this out. We want to preserve it, but keep it accessible and safe in an area that is urban.

OMC: Some homeowners living east of the river struggle with issues like loud college parties, litter and a lack of parking. What is your message to these residents?

MD: I think that we have to continue to work for solutions and that means the university working with us, the regions working with us, the state working with us because my line is this: UWM has grown its student body 10 percent over the last five years and they never asked anybody who lives around there if that was a good thing. They never measured the impact that it would have on the people who live there, and have made investments there.

It is unfair, I think, for the state to impose that upon us without taking reactions into account. My goal now is to make sure that that connection is between the people who live there and the decision makers, so when they make those kinds of decisions, they understand the impact.

At this point, my belief is that UWM has put as much as they can into that East Side campus. It has reached its maximum growth. It’s changing the dynamic of the neighborhood slowly from a single-family neighborhood to a student-rental neighborhood and that’s dangerous. It destabilizes that neighborhood. I want the university to be there, it adds value to the area, but I also want the neighborhood to stay family-oriented, and I want that balance to be realized.

The balance is tipping over the wrong way. UWM needs to find a second campus, somewhere in the city, but not on the East Side. Whether it’s near Capitol Drive between Humboldt and Holton is a great location, or the old Pabst Brewery, Park East or on the Northeast side. They need another campus that works in conjunction with the East Side campus so they can grown and add value but not overwhelm that neighborhood.

The parking solution that we’ve come up with for resident parking I think is the perfect model. We didn’t say to the university, “Get your cars off our streets. It’s your problem.” Instead, we said let’s make a deal that we understand that the number of spaces that you have for parking are constant -- both on campus and off campus – so we’ll trade you those off-campus parking spots on the street, for a new parking structure that you build on campus. This way, the students and the residents win.

OMC: Would you label yourself “pro-development?’

MD: I am pro growth. I hate sprawl. Suburban sprawl to me is sickening. I think it’s a travesty that we’re talking about $25 million to build an interchange at Pabst Farms when we can’t get a light rail system built in the city of Milwaukee. It’s crazy. So if we believe in growth and if we’re against sprawl, then that growth has to take place somewhere, and I think that place is in the City of Milwaukee.

The City of Milwaukee is a dynamic place. It’s vibrant, it’s diverse, it’s efficient as far as tax dollars go, and if we’re going to grow southeastern Wisconsin, I hope all of that growth happens in the city of Milwaukee, across the board: on the northwest side, southwest side, Downtown, Riverwest, everywhere. It’s my job to help control that, but also to make sure Milwaukee is a continually growing and vibrant city and I think we’ve achieved that.

OMC: Do you support two-way traffic on Prospect and Farwell?

MD: I have been working on this for 10 years, and unfortunately it has been slowed by the discussion of the Milwaukee Connector and now the Mayor’s transit plan because those are the main corridors for that transit plan and the conversion may interrupt that.  At this point, we have 80 percent support from all of the property and business owners on Farwell between North Avenue and Ogden. Farwell is a no-brainer. It needs that.

I can’t tell you how many people come to me saying they want to open a retail space in the area, but not on a one-way street. One-way streets kill retail. The day that we change Farwell to a two-way street, the value of that street increases exponentially because people now see both inbound and outbound traffic for their businesses.

Prospect is more tricky. It’s not necessarily a commercial corridor. It’s a residential street above Lafayette, and so, at this point, what we’re looking for as a solution is to convert Farwell and try to do something with Prospect between Bradford and Lafayette, where there are commercial businesses: Alterra, Izumi’s, Café Brucke, the new Lafayette condos will have retail space and Urban Outfitters will be there.

So if we can do a partial change on Prospect, and do Farwell two-way, I think that will satisfy everybody and see great commercial growth. Farwell is the key, though. It’s really very important that that street becomes edgy and active and cool.

OMC: What other retail would you like to see on Farwell Avenue?

MD: What we’ve started with is great: Envy, Moxy, Utrecht, SL, Shag, all of those small businesses are fantastic. I also think Whole Foods is fantastic. You need anchors so the smaller businesses can survive. You need anchors to draw the traffic to those littler guys. We need a combination of both. I think that North Avenue in five years is going to be THE city shopping district on the street, and I think it’s going to be replicated in other parts of the city too, whether it’s Mitchell Street or Center Street, that combination of big generators of traffic with small locally owned businesses.

I would think the people who are the most excited about Urban Outfitters coming are the people in the smaller shops right around there. Because when Urban Outfitters draws a million people a year, those million people are going to shop in the area, not just at Urban Outfitters but at the smaller businesses, too.

OMC: What are your thoughts on Sura Faraj’s and Nik Kovac’s collaborative effort to unseat you?

MD: I think democracy is a beautiful thing. I am sure they are beautiful people and they care about things. I don’t think either of them have the experience or the breadth of knowledge that I do. I’ve been here for 12 years and we’ve done great things. We have transformed the East Side from something that was sleepy and being challenged by places like the Third and Fifth Wards to actually creating a really dynamic neighborhood that has had life breathed back into it.

It’s true of Riverwest. It’s true of North Avenue. It’s true of Downer Avenue. Obviously Brady Street is wonderful. The East Side very easily could have gone down hill with the competition, but we rose to the occasion and changed things in a dramatic fashion. I assume they will do what they are going to do, but we have done really good things over the past 12 years.

OMC: So expound on why you are the best person for the job?

MD: I tell people I love this job. It’s well suited for me and I’m well-suited for it. In order to do this job well in this district, you have to be active and you have to be a city leader. I don’t think people are satisfied with just an alderman who puts their head down and is blind to what’s happening beyond their borders. People in this district care about what happens in the central city, they care about citywide issues and I think I’ve become a city leader over the past several years that has brought that dimension to what happens here.

I think you have to make really hard decisions, and you can’t pander to people, you have to engage people, and then when your time is right, you have to make that hard decision to go forward. My family and me are like a lot of people who are in this district. We are progressive, we have chosen to raise our family here, we use all of the East Side and Riverwest amenities, and it really has led to me representing it in a way that’s consistent with what people want.

OMC: What are some of your favorite restaurants to go to with your family?

MD: That’s a completely unfair question. I have 100 of them, and you’re asking me to pick out one or two. But I’ll tell you the places I think are great that don’t get a lot of notoriety. I think Café Brucke is great. I think this new little spot Lemon is a very unique, cool little spot. Nessun Dorma is great.  I think Art Bar is great, too, and what Don (Krause) and John (Tomlinson) have done here is tremendous. Those unique little spaces that you can’t find anywhere else. Obviously, all of the Alterras are homegrown and wonderful gathering places. There are just a ton of great places, and we like to go to as many as we can. When they’re locally owned and operated, it shines and people notice that.

OMC: Where do you stand on the smoking ban?

MD: I am absolutely in favor of it. Some of those people I just mentioned won’t like me for that. I think it’s something we have to do at the state level because I do think there’s an unfair competitive advantage for border communities. Not as much here on the East Side, but on the Southwest Side and Northwest Side and for the city, I think it’s bad for us to become an island. So we have been working with the state. I sponsored a resolution that the city of Milwaukee supports a statewide ban for health reasons, and also because there should be some consistency.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.