By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jun 28, 2024 at 9:01 AM

Mayor Cavalier Johnson and other officials will cut the ribbon on the new 30,000-square-foot Vel R. Phillips Plaza, 401 W. Wisconsin Ave., on a damp Friday morning, breathing life back into a central Downtown block after nearly 40 years as a surface parking lot.


Named in honor of Civil Rights leader, politician and judge Vel R. Phillips – for whom the adjacent 4th Street was renamed in 2018 – the plaza has kiosks with historical information about Phillips and the Civil Rights movement, seating, plantings, public art, space for events like markets and food trucks, a BRT stop and hopefully someday a stop on an extension of The Hop streetcar.

The park, which has been under discussion and in planning for a number of years, is located directly across the street from the recently expanded Baird Center convention facility, the Hilton City Center Hotel and a new Kohl’s store in the HUB 640 complex.

The plaza adds a bit of green and hopefully creates what could become a central gathering space in the heart of Westown. As the trees and plantings mature, the park will become even more verdant.


The addition of a transit station with a Hop stop and a mixed-use development on the adjacent nearly 56,000-square-foot parcel along the south end of the site would add further life to this long-underutilized spot.

(That adjacent site remains in parking but the city is seeking proposals for its development.)

Also included in the park, and still under construction, is a nearly 3,000-square-foot pavilion that will host a food and beverage venue operated by the owners of Draft & Vessel, which has locations in Shorewood and Wauwatosa. The building will also house public restrooms.

Interior build-out of the space is underway this summer, and the cafe is expected to open in autumn.

The park is built on land fronting the south side of West Wisconsin Avenue between Phillips Avenue and North 5th Street that was once lined with retail buildings and the 1927 Herbert Tullgren-designed Randolph Hotel.


The hotel fell in 1985 and the rest of the block – which was also home to a building that housed The Starship punk venue and a number of nightclubs across decades – came down around the same time. It was paved for parking and sat underutilized ever since.

Vel R PhillipsX

In related news, a statue of Phillips was unveiled on the grounds of the state capitol in Madison on Thursday.

The statue, by artist Radcliffe Bailey, who died last November, honors Phillips, who made history as the first Black American woman to be elected to statewide office in Wisconsin when she was elected as Wisconsin’s 29th Secretary of State in 1979.

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.