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‘Sea of parking’: Could land around Milwaukee Brewers stadium be home to future development?

Some want to see parking lots converted to an entertainment district

Cars are parked in the parking lot in front of American Family Field. A small group of men gather before entering.
Fans gather before walking into American Family Field for the Brewers’ season opener Thursday, April 1, 2021, in Milwaukee. Angela Major/WPR

The aroma of grilled bratwursts and sound of baseballs hitting gloves over speakers playing “Beer Barrel Polka” are key to the pre-game experience for many Milwaukee Brewers fans, some of whom flood the parking lots hours before first pitch.

Although tailgating isn’t unique to the Brewers, it is a part of the team’s culture and identity. The 12,000 parking spaces and around 160 acres of parking lots at American Family Field are typically flooded with celebrating fans before games. But now as part of discussions related to a bipartisan plan to fund stadium renovations some, including Milwaukee’s mayor, are pushing the team to redevelop at least some of the property devoted to parking.

“American Family Field is surrounded by, and has been since 2001, a sea of parking,” Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said. “I’d like to challenge the Brewers, to challenge that organization, to really consider, really push out, this idea of building a district around American Family Field and not to be surrounded by a sea of parking.”

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Groups of people in lawn chairs grill and drink beer in the parking lot.
Tailgaters enjoy the mild spring weather before the Brewers’ home opener Monday, April 3, 2023, at American Family Field in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Some believe the land could have better uses, including space for restaurants and bars, hotels, apartment buildings and retail stores. That includes Robin Palm, an urban planner and representative for the Southeastern Wisconsin American Planning Association. Last year, he proposed the idea of building a “beer district” around the stadium.

“The success of multi-use development around stadiums throughout the country, honestly, it’s been the saving grace for stadium financing deals,” Palm said.

Across the nation, there are several examples of developments and redevelopments spawning next to or around stadiums. The New York Mets owner announced an $8 billion plan last week to turn 50 acres of asphalt around the Mets ballpark for an entertainment district, public park space and athletic fields.

And in Milwaukee, there is another example just across town. The Bucks’ Deer District, which surrounds the Fiserv Forum, is lined with restaurants and commercial spaces, and includes a large plaza for community events and watch parties. In Green Bay, the Titletown District development next to Lambeau Field is the home of apartment buildings, hotels and restaurants.

A woman wears a blue Bucks jersey as she hugs her dog with light fur in front of the Fiserv Forum.
Mary Merg hugs her dog, Tucker, as they walk around the market Wednesday, July 28, 2021, at the Deer District in Milwaukee, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Chad Venne, the director of the real estate program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said he could see a combination of housing, retail, entertainment and hospitality uses at American Family Field, which seats over 45,000 fans.

“All of those would have to be really done in a complimentary fashion to one another, rather than just a one-off development in a parking lot,” Venne said.

During recent public hearings on the stadium funding plan, Brewers president of business operations Rick Schlesinger has said he’s not opposed to development around the stadium.

“Can real estate development coexist with our tailgating culture and with our parking? Yes, but the devil is in the details,” Schlesinger said during an October public hearing.

Rep. Robert Brooks, R-Saukville, said a local advisory board could be created to look at ways to develop the parking lot and the land around the stadium. That’s something Schlesinger has said he’s open to as well.

“If we’re going to do it, it’s our exclusive property. If it makes economic sense, we would like to do it. If it makes no economic sense, it would be a fool’s errand to do it,” he said.

Schlesinger has expressed a few concerns about development however, one being protecting tailgating. During more popular games, he said the parking lot is often full.

“The Brewers experience is not just coming to the games and hopefully watching us win, it’s the tailgating beforehand,” Schlesinger said.

Schlesinger has also said he’s worried any development will add to traffic problems, as some fans have complained about the time it takes to leave the stadium after games. But Palm said that’s something development — which could offer an “alternative to tailgating” — could fix.

“If there was something to do right there, they wouldn’t necessarily have to leave right away,” Palm said. “You’re easing your traffic problem by giving things to do around the stadium.”

Fans in Packers gear drink beer at tables set up near the stadium.
Packers fans sit in the Titletown District in Ashwaubenon before a preseason home game Friday, Aug. 19, 2022. Angela Major/WPR

Venne also said more opportunities before or after games could help with traffic concerns.

“When you have 35,000 people all let out of a stadium at once, and they have nowhere to go but their cars into a freeway on ramp, you’re essentially not giving anyone an option but to be sitting in traffic,” Venne said.

The parking lot often sits vacant for several months during the off-season as well. Venne said that’s another argument for development.

“If they become these year-round destinations, it really opens up a lot more potential for teams to stay relevant and stay on their fans’ radar throughout the entire season,” Venne said.

Other issues Schlesinger has mentioned include the potential need for environmental remediation at the site because it was built on a landfill. An unlike the Deer District, Schlesinger said, the stadium isn’t located downtown in an area with a dense population. And there is a lack of public transit to the site.

“I’ve got challenges of having enough of a population that can access it,” Schlesinger said.

Three fans stand in the parking lot in front of American Family Field
A fan takes a photo of American Family Field before the Brewers’ season opener against the Twins on Thursday, April 1, 2021, in Milwaukee. Angela Major/WPR

“I think it’s important that everybody work to come up with a creative complimentary plan that includes the communities surrounding the stadium, the organization itself, and the city, but recognize that these things take a lot of time, that they take a lot of time to do right,” Venne said.

The Legislature’s powerful budget committee voted 15-1 in favor of the stadium funding plan Nov. 8. The full Senate could vote on it as soon as this week.