Have other cities done this?
YES! MORE THAN THIRTY ACTUALLY!
Across the country, more than thirty cities are rethinking their urban freeways for many of the same reasons we cite when we talk about rethinking I-794. Urban freeway spurs typically see a fraction of the traffic they were designed to handle, oftentimes disconnect cities from their waterfronts and other natural assets and have never delivered the economic benefits that were promised when they were constructed. Turns out that demolishing acres and acres of homes and businesses is not a catalyst for community development! To learn more about the more than thirty cities in the process of rethinking their freeways, see the Congress for New Urbanism’s 2021 list of Freeways Without Futures.
Park East Freeway Removal
You don’t need to leave Milwaukee to see how freeway removal can change a city for the better. The Park East Freeway removal was a groundbreaking project that reinvigorated three of Milwaukee’s historic neighborhoods and led to the creation of the new Deer District. Today there is no question that removing Park East was a success. The area has generated over a billion dollars in private investment. Most recently, workers broke ground on a 205-room hotel in the Deer District (Jannene 2021).
Rochester, NY’s Inner Loop
Rochester, New York’s Inner Loop is a case study in what Downtown Milwaukee might be coping with had our Downtown Loop been completed. The Inner Loop wrapped tightly around Downtown Rochester, strangling development. Like I-794, the Inner Loop never saw the traffic volumes it was designed to handle (CNU Staff n.d.). The eastern portion of the Inner Loop was a trench that separated Downtown Rochester from the East Side, much like how I-794 separates Downtown Milwaukee and the Third Ward.
Since demolition of the first portion of the Inner Loop, walking and biking in the area have increased 50% and 60% respectively. Reclaiming 6.5 acres of land cost only $22 million in public funds. Redevelopment has generated $229 million in economic development, 534 new housing units, more than half of which are subsidized or below market rate, and 152,000 square feet of new commercial space (CNU Staff n.d.). Citing these benefits, officials have launched a plan to remove the second and final portion of the Inner Loop (Gorbman 2022). The evidence is clear: the benefits of removing these redundant pieces of infrastructure are immense while the positives of the status quo are difficult to discern. Milwaukee should not miss once in a generation infrastructure funding while other cities reap the benefits.
San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway
The completion of the Embarcadero Freeway was one of the major factors in spurring San Francisco’s Freeway Revolt. Like I-794, the elevated Embarcadero severed San Francisco from its gorgeous waterfront. After an earthquake totaled the Embarcadero in 1989, the city seized the opportunity to rethink its urban core, converting the freeway to a surface-level boulevard with space for vehicles and light rail. The Embarcadero Freeway had much higher traffic than I-794, nearly 100,000 per day (CNU Staff n.d.). Though traffic 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.). Today, the neighborhood that used to live in the freeway’s shadow is one of the most popular in the city. Boulevard conversion opened new space for parkland and development. It would be difficult to find a Bay Area resident who misses the Embarcadero, the same will be true for I-794.
CNU Staff. n.d. “Embarcadero Freeway | CNU.” Accessed May 3, 2022a. https://www.cnu.org/what-we-do/build-great-places/embarcadero-freeway.
———. n.d. “Rochester | Inner Loop North | CNU.” Accessed May 3, 2022b. https://www.cnu.org/highways-boulevards/campaign-cities/buffalo-inner-loop-north.
Gorbman, Randy. 2022. “Hochul Announces $100 Million Commitment for Inner Loop Fill-in Work.” WXXI News. March 7, 2022. https://www.wxxinews.org/local-news/2022-03-07/hochul-announces-100-million-commitment-for-inner-loop-fill-in-work.
Jannene, Jeramey. 2021. “Eyes on Milwaukee: Bucks, NCG Break Ground on Deer District Hotel » Urban Milwaukee.” Urban Milwaukee. September 17, 2021. https://urbanmilwaukee.com/2021/09/17/eyes-on-milwaukee-bucks-ncg-break-ground-on-deer-district-hotel/.
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.