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Imagine Reconnecting Downtown and the Third Ward

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Today I-794 poses an unnecessary barrier between two of our flagship neighborhoods, but it doesn't have to be this way. Between the northern terminus of the Hoan Bridge and Waters Street, I-794's footprint consumes 32.5 acres of the most valuable commercial and residential real estate in Wisconsin, estimated to be worth as much as $1.5 billion. The east-west section of I-794 has reached the end of its useful life, presenting a once in a generation opportunity to reconnect Milwaukee’s traditional commercial center to the Third Ward. WisDOT’s own data shows that this portion of I-794 is underutilized as majority of I-794's riders are traveling to and from downtown and the Third Ward rather than using the full length of the interstate. Our goal is to have the City of Milwaukee and WisDOT study a boulevard alternative for this portion of I-794.

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Rethinking 794 as a surface-level boulevard will reconnect downtown and the Third Ward to each other and the lakeshore, opening 32.5 acres of real-estate currently occupied by ramps and surface parking lots to new development and green space. The land beneath I-794 is some of the most valuable in Wisconsin. Based on the assessed value of nearby new construction, the 32.5 acres of land between 6th and Chicago Street is worth over a billion dollars. Boulevard conversion could generate $15 million in annual property tax revenue for the City of Milwaukee and deliver much needed new housing in a high demand area.  

The progress Downtown Milwaukee and the Historic Third Ward have experienced for the last two decades has occurred largely in spite of I-794's imposing elevated freeways. Drivers frequently cite this area as one of the most confusing and nerve-racking in Wisconsin. Rethinking I-794 as a surface-level boulevard and reconnecting the grid will reduce congestion and make driving downtown less stressful by giving drivers coming from the Marquette Interchange and Hoan Bridge more access points to Downtown Milwaukee and the Third Ward. Pedestrians will enjoy enhanced access to Lake Michigan from the Third Ward, as well as the several regional trails in the area. 

For the first time in half a century, pedestrians walking from Downtown to the Third Ward would not have to crawl under a legacy of Milwaukee’s darkest chapter. Since the construction of 794, Milwaukee has learned a difficult lesson about the fiscal costs and inequitable burden created by urban freeways. Rethinking I-794 will heal a lasting scar from this dark era. 

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Imagine Clybourn Street as a Boulevard

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Our Priorities:

Rethinking I-794 presents a rare opportunity for Milwaukee to reverse its declining population through exciting new developments, address a plague of pedestrian deaths, and reconnect our city to its most prized natural wonder: Lake Michigan.

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Economic development

The Park East Freeway removal yielded over $1,060,000,000 of private investment in development projects, with the potential for an additional investment of $250 million on the few remaining undeveloped parcels. There has never been a freeway to boulevard conversion project that did not enhance business activity. Removing just a small portion of I-794 will accelerate the revitalization downtown and the Third Ward have experienced.

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Make our streets safer

Pedestrian safety has reached a breaking point in Milwaukee. Freeways like I-794 and extra-wide boulevards that do little to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists have made walking and biking around our city unsafe. Milwaukee’s wide, straight streets encourage reckless driving and make too many of our city’s residential streets unsafe for children, pedestrians, and cyclists. In the first half of 2021, pedestrian deaths jumped 85% in Wisconsin. State and local policymakers must come together to Rethink 794 and put a stop to these preventable deaths.

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Reconnect Milwaukee and Lake Michigan

Much of the Hoan Bridge was built on in-fill, extending Milwaukee's coastline into Lake Michigan. This space was intended to “be used exclusively as a public park, parkway, amusement or recreation grounds”. Instead, it's a parking lot desert. Rethinking I-794 opens 15 areas west of the Hoan to new recreation opportunities and enhances existing connections to Lakefront State Park, the Hank Aaron Trail, and Oak Leaf Trail.

Let's Reconnect Downtown and the Third Ward

I-794 is a relic of a time when planners, engineers and elected officials thought of Downtown Milwaukee and the Third Ward as commuting destinations rather than growing neighborhoods. Today, more than 23 million annual visitors flock to Cream City for business and leisure travel. Though tourists and residents alike have fallen in love with the heart of our city, I-794 ensures these flagship neighborhoods remain severed from one another.

What if Milwaukee’s downtown transportation system reflected the city we are today?

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Rethink 794 is a community-driven project led by the team at 1000 Friends of Wisconsin. 1000 Friends of Wisconsin was created in 1996 with a focus on promoting Wisconsin's Smart Growth Comprehensive Planning Law. Over the years we have continued to defend the law but have also expanded our mission to advance healthy communities, positive economic outcomes, and environmental benefits in Wisconsin. We understand that climate change and land use are intrinsically linked. Our goal is to help people make the connection between sound land use and transportation decisions, which lead to a healthier, cleaner environment.

This website was built by Jack Connors, our Policy Research Assistant, without whose help, none of this would have been possible. Thank you Jack! Follow him on twitter @notJackConnors.

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