History of I-794
CONSTRUCTION, IMPACT, REVITALIZATION, AND WHAT'S TO COME NEXT
PLANNERS PROPOSE A "DOWNTOWN LOOP" FOR MILWAUKEE
Can you imagine if Lincoln Memorial Drive was an elevated freeway obstructing downtown views of the Milwaukee Art Museum and Lake Michigan? As absurd as it seems today, in 1964 plans were unveiled to do just that (Snyder 2016, 21). The modern footprint of I-794 was just one part of a larger plan to construct a ring of freeways around Downtown Milwaukee. Had the Lake Freeway been completed as planners envisioned it at the time, views between Downtown and Lake Michigan would be obstructed by an elevated freeway stretching from the Hoan’s northern terminus, bisecting Juneau Park, before connecting to the Park East Freeway (Snyder 2016, 21).
AS MILWAUKEEANS REVOLT, I-794 BECOMES A FREEWAY TO NOWHERE
During the Milwaukee Freeway Revolt, community advocates used the just-passed National Environmental Policy Act to halt I-794 and ensure that the downtown loop was never finished (Snyder 2016, 18–23). Though Milwaukee’s downtown loop was never completed, engineers constructing I-794 assumed it would. In 1969, I-794, known then as the East-West Freeway, was extended across the Milwaukee River to Jackson and Van Buren Streets. The Hoan Bridge was completed in 1973 but rising opposition to freeway construction delayed its connection to I-794, leaving it unconnected on both ends for three years after its completion (Bessert 2016). From then on, many referred to the Hoan as the “Bridge to Nowhere” (Delaney 1976; Prigge 2021). In 1977, the bridge was connected to the East-West portion of 794. At one point, the Lake Interchange had two stub-end ramps intended to connect 794 to the never-complete Lake Freeway. It was not until the bipartisan Lakefront Gateway Project that these stub-ends were fully removed, opening space that is now occupied by the Couture (Bessert 2021; DCD Staff n.d.). Just as the era of new urban freeway construction in Milwaukee was ending, a long fight to rethink and demolish our freeways was beginning.
MILWAUKEE GRAPPLES WITH THE IMPACT OF FREEWAY CONSTRUCTION
Like most freeways built during the postwar era, Milwaukee’s freeway system was constructed with extreme haste. Between 1962 and 1967, an average of 9.5 miles of freeway were opened annually (Snyder 2016, 19). The Milwaukee Freeway Revolt successfully halted I-794 and ensured that the downtown loop was never finished (Snyder 2016, 18–23). Nevertheless, the scars of this proposal have had a lasting impact on Milwaukee. Milwaukee County’s freeway program destroyed more than 6,300 housing units and displaced almost 20,000 people between 1959 and 1971 (Snyder 2016, 23). We have yet to reckon with the impact this has had on our city, in particular Communities of Color.
Had it been fully completed, the Park East Freeway would have paralleled I-794 between I-43 and Lake Michigan, creating what would have been the northern section of the downtown loop. In 1972, Mayor Henry Maier vetoed the project, effectively ending the era of new freeway construction in Milwaukee’s urban core.
AS MILWAUKEE STRUGGLES, STATE OFFICIALS ALLOW THE PARK EAST'S RIGHT-OF-WAY TO SIT VACANT FOR TWO DECADES
Though freeway expansion was halted, a one-mile elevated portion of Park East spurring off from I-43 had been completed in 1971. For two decades, the right-of-way for the unfinished portion of the Park East Freeway sat vacant. In the early 1990s the state ceded its claim to the right-of-way, allowing the East Pointe Neighborhood to emerge (Snyder 2016, 26). In 1999, the State of Wisconsin, Milwaukee County and the City of Milwaukee reached a deal to remove the Park East Freeway. Demolition began in 2002 (Snyder 2016, 64).
At the time it was built, I-794 sought to make it easier for suburban commuters to access jobs downtown, catalyzing new development (Snyder 2016, 31). Instead, it created a confusing web of freeway ramps and surface parking lots that depressed the area. Freeway construction precipitated an era of white flight from which we have never recovered. From 1970 to 1985, the Third Ward’s population decreased from 156 to 36 people (City of Milwaukee Staff 2006, 17). Today, Milwaukee remains one of the most segregated cities in America.
MILWAUKEE MAYOR HENRY MAIER
“America is the only nation in the world to let her cities ride to bankruptcy on a freeway … My city has discovered that the freeway is not free.”
MILWAUKEE REAPS THE BENEFITS OF PARK EAST'S REMOVAL
Replacing the Park East Freeway with a boulevard connected to the preexisting street grid opened 24 acres (about the area of Chicago's Millennium Park) of downtown property for redevelopment. Since the removal of the freeway the Park East Corridor has seen 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 (DCD Staff n.d.). This includes the site of the Fiserv Forum and Deer District.
A study of three highway removal projects, including the Park East Freeway, found no evidence that the projects increased traffic. Instead, traffic is redistributed onto the street grid below (Snyder 2016, 4). San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway had much higher traffic than I-794, nearly 100,000 per day (CNU Staff n.d.) compared to the 38 to 68 thousand that utilize this stretch of I-794 (“WisDOT Traffic Counts” 2022). Though traffic in San Francisco did rise briefly after its demolition, it was quickly absorbed by the underutilized street grid below. The city also saw an increase in public transit use (CNU Staff n.d.). Given these facts, the question we should be asking is why WisDOT is spending hundreds of millions of tax dollars to reconstruct a $300 million exit ramp their own consultants have determined is unnecessary.
I-794 Today: Overdesigned and Underutilized
Though designed to accommodate 100,000 daily drivers, just 14,500 vehicles used I-794 the year it opened (Snyder 2016, 29). Today, WisDOT’s traffic counts show ridership usage at a fraction of capacity (“WisDOT Traffic Counts” 2022; Snyder 2016). The Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s own consultants concluded that 794 is “oversized for its current and projected traffic” (Snyder 2016, 58). Usage falls precipitously along 794’s eastern span, a clear indication that most drivers are using the area to reach the area, not travel through it (“WisDOT Traffic Counts” 2022). The web of ramps leading to I-794 is frequently cited as one of the most confusing in the state and offers far fewer access points to the nearby Marquette Interchange than a surface-level boulevard.
Remnants of the Downtown Loop Remain
The existing ramps between the east-west segment of 794 and the Hoan Bridge comprise the southern portion of the never-finished Downtown Loop that has been called “little more than an exit ramp” by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s editorial staff (Snyder 2016, 46). This offers little advantage to drivers and makes its footprint significantly larger than it otherwise would be. South of the Hoan Bridge, I-794 transitions into a surface level parkway area business leaders have heralded (Snyder 2016, 31). A 1936 agreement between the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County stipulated that the land surrounding the Hoan should “be used exclusively as a public park, parkway, amusement or recreation grounds”. The Summerfest grounds east of the Hoan fulfill the spirit of this agreement but I-794 today can hardly be described as a parkway (Snyder 2016, 26). Nearly all of the space between the Hoan and Jackson Street is dedicated to surface parking lots or vacant. That same 1936 agreement stipulated that ownership of in-fill land, including much of the land the Hoan is built on, would revert to the City of Milwaukee if this land were used for anything other than park purposes (Snyder 2016, 27).
Leaders Seek to Address the Issues I-794 Created
Around the turn of the century, downtown's fortunes began to change as new developments came to Milwaukee’s urban core. While I-794 and the space under it has sat underutilized since its completion, human-scale projects like the RiverWalk, Deer District, and Lakefront Gateway have generated renewed interest in downtown and the Third Ward.
In 2013, former Governor Walker and then Mayor Barrett reached a bipartisan deal called the Lakefront Gateway Project, opening three acres of lakefront property to development. The project improved pedestrian infrastructure and parkland between downtown and the lakefront by demolishing redundant vestiges of the ramps meant to connect I-794 to the Lake Freeway. Today, the three acres are bisected by Clybourn street with the Couture on the northern side and vacant developable plot on the southern side (DCD Staff n.d.).
Milwaukee's Freeways Strangle its Core, Dampening Revitalization
Today, the Third Ward’s population has exploded to almost 25,000. Between 2000 and 2010, the Census tract that encompasses the Third Ward grew by 70%, making it the fastest growing Census tract in Milwaukee and the sixth fastest in Wisconsin (Thomas 2021). Walking around the area, it is easy to understand why. The Third Ward is one of the best examples of a walkable, mixed-use neighborhood in Wisconsin. It is these residents, not commuters, who have been essential to the area’s amazing comeback.
Though all Milwaukeeans should take pride in the progress our city has made, I-794 continues to limit our city’s economic development, severing the Historic Third Ward from Downtown Milwaukee and Lake Michigan. Planners, politicians, and locals have all noted that the “pedestrian “disconnection” [I-794 creates] diminishes the value and vibrancy of the severed neighborhoods” (City of Milwaukee Staff 2006). When you stop to think about it, it's easy to understand why. Instead of looking at our beautiful lakeshore, visitors and residents leaving Milwaukee Public Market are greeted by decaying concrete. The area is frequently cited as one of the most confusing to drive and dangerous to walk. Despite being at the nexus of beloved trails like the Hank Aaron, Oak Leaf, and RiverWalk, the area is dominated by the noise, endless surface parking lots, and high-speed traffic I-794 generates.
Despite Red Flags, Officials Plan to Rebuild I-794
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is in the early stages of planning a $300 million reconstruction of I-794 between the Milwaukee River and Hoan Bridge. Our goal is to have the City of Milwaukee and WisDOT study a boulevard alternative for this portion of I-794. Recent developments show that this is far more than a pipe dream.
Park East was one of the first projects to demonstrate how freeway removal can be a catalyst for change. After twenty years, Milwaukee is once again starting to lead in this space. Most recently, WisDOT announced plans to study converting the Stadium Freeway into an at-grade boulevard (Bentley 2022). As I-794 comes to the end of its useful life, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to heal a scar left by one of the ugliest chapters in our history. We are at a rare inflection point where Milwaukee can either cement past mistake for another half century or work towards a more equitable transportation system that helps our city heal and starts to address the climate crisis we face.
Beyond the one billion dollars of private investment the Park East Freeway removal generated, the Fiserv Forum has become a flagship example of how investing in public space can bring our city, so often defined by its segregation, together. This unity was on full display as our Bucks advanced through the playoffs to become the defending NBA World Champions this past summer. Mayor Cavalier Johnson has already indicated support for seizing this opportunity (Schafer 2021). Now, we need Milwaukee’s Department of City Development and WisDOT to agree to consider design alternatives that include rethinking I-794 as a surface-level boulevard.
Bentley, Drake. 2022. “Wisconsin DOT Study to Explore Rebuilding Highway 175 near Stadium.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. May 4, 2022. https://www.jsonline.com/story/news/local/milwaukee/2022/05/04/milwaukee-stadium-freeway-north-reexamined-grade-boulevard-favored/9640284002/.
Bessert, Christopher. 2016. “Wisconsin Highways: Highways 400-894.” Wisconsin Highways. February 5, 2016. http://www.wisconsinhighways.org/listings/WiscHwys400-894.html.
City of Milwaukee Staff. 2006. “Third Ward Neighborhood Comprehensive Plan.” City of Milwaukee. July 2006. https://city.milwaukee.gov/ImageLibrary/Groups/cityDCD/planning/plans/ThirdWard/plan/TWPlan.pdf.
CNU Staff. n.d. “Embarcadero Freeway | CNU.” Accessed May 3, 2022. https://www.cnu.org/what-we-do/build-great-places/embarcadero-freeway.
DCD Staff. n.d. “Milwaukee Lakefront Gateway Project.” City of Milwaukee Department of City Development. Accessed May 4, 2022a. https://city.milwaukee.gov/AreaPlans/Downtown/Milwaukee-Lakefront-Gateway-Project.htm.
———. n.d. “Park East Freeway - History and Removal.” City of Milwaukee Department of City Development. Accessed April 20, 2022b. https://city.milwaukee.gov/DCD/Projects/ParkEastredevelopment/Park-East-History.
Delaney, Paul. 1976. “They Call It ‘Bridge That Leads to Nowhere.’” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, November 7, 1976. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=k3MjAAAAIBAJ&sjid=QWcEAAAAIBAJ&pg=6673%2C2932127.
Bessert, Christopher. 2021. “Milwaukee Freeways: Lake Freeway.” Wisconsin Highways. November 7, 2021. http://www.wisconsinhighways.org/milwaukee/lake.html.
Prigge, Matthew. 2021. “Why the Hoan Used to Be Called the Bridge to Nowhere.” Milwaukee Magazine, January 15, 2021. https://www.milwaukeemag.com/why-the-hoan-used-to-be-called-the-bridge-to-nowhere/.
Schafer, Dan. 2021. “PODCAST: Interview with Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson.” The Recombobulation Area. January 31, 2021. https://recombobulationarea.substack.com/p/podcast-interview-cavalier-johnson-milwaukee?s=w.
Snyder, Alex. 2016. “Freeway Removal in Milwaukee: Three Case Studies.” Theses and Dissertations. May 1, 2016. https://dc.uwm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2254&context=etd.
Thomas, Arthur. 2021. “Public Record: Where Is Milwaukee County Growing?” BizTimes. September 26, 2021. https://biztimes.com/public-record-where-is-milwaukee-county-growing/.
“WisDOT Traffic Counts.” 2022. ArcGIS. 2022. https://wisdot.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=2e12a4f051de4ea9bc865ec6393731f8.