By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Mar 09, 2023 at 10:25 AM

A planned public plaza in a long-underutilized, high-profile plot of land in the heart of Downtown is taking a step forward.

Mayor Cavalier Johnson announced a TID (Tax Incremental District) amendment on Thursday to help realize Vel R. Phillips Plaza on the south side of Wisconsin Avenue between Phillips Avenue and North 5th Street.

The site is directly across the street from the Wisconsin Center. It has been vacant since the Randolph Hotel was demolished in the mid-1980s.

A proposed amendment to TID #48 for Park East Corridor Redevelopment would allot $15.75 million for the construction the plaza, which would be roughly 30,000 square feet.


The space would include a 2,900-square-foot food/beverage retail space, a manicured garden, an information kiosk, public art installations, a Bus Rapid Transit station and a flexible space that Thursday’s announcement suggested could host events like farmers markets and food trucks.

The announcement made no reference to The Hop streetcar.

The amount also includes $4.35 million for improvements to infrastructure and lighting in the area and $500,000 for the Commercial Revitalization Grant Program to help commercial property owners fund building renovations and improvements.

The Milwaukee Common Council, the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Milwaukee (RACM) Board, and the Milwaukee Joint Review Board are all expected to discuss the proposal soon.

New renderings of the space are expected to be released soon. The ones accompanying this story – prepared by TKWA UrbanLab and Madison-based Saiki Design landscape architects – are from 2019.

“The City of Milwaukee is prepared to move forward on the Vel R. Phillips Plaza that will add to the positive momentum taking place in the Westown neighborhood, which is witnessing a string of exciting development, investment, and activity,” Johnson said in a statement. “I am a strong supporter of gathering places and plazas. From economic development benefits and expanded public transit connections, to cultural and educational opportunities that are accessible for all, gathering places enhance the quality of life in our communities.

“As the nation recognizes and celebrates Women’s History Month, I am looking forward to this plaza honoring the legacy, activism, and public service of Vel R. Phillips, as well as providing a dynamic and active gathering place for the community to utilize and enjoy for years to come.”

The plaza plan was first announced by Johnson’s predecessor Tom Barrett in 2019. The plan – which city leaders hoped would be ready in time for the 2020 Democratic National Convention – was stymied when the Common Council decided not to fund a streetcar extension to it and the convention center.

An earlier iteration of the plaza idea for the site emerged in 2016 as part of discussions of a larger development on the site.

The plaza would not fill all of the vacant lot that can be seen today, leaving more than 50,000 square feet for potential private development on the site.

Phillips – a pioneering judge, politician and activist – died in 2018.

“On behalf of myself and my family, I extend our full approval and support for the Vel R. Phillips Plaza project. We are overjoyed,” said Phillips’ son Michael Phillips.

“We wish to thank Mayor Johnson and the Milwaukee Common Council for their efforts. And, if I may say, I can feel my mother’s blessing beaming down from above. Thank you!”

Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley added, “I applaud the City’s work to create this public space in honor of a true icon of our greater community, Vel R. Phillips.

“Milwaukee County is investing in and building upon transportation infrastructure to expand mobility and spur economic activity throughout the County. I’m pleased to see this project come to fruition, as it aligns perfectly with Milwaukee County’s commitment to ensuring residents can take any mode of transport anywhere in the community in a safe, affordable, and efficient manner.”

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.